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For Howard and Arenas, it’s title or bust

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports
For Howard and Arenas, it’s title or bust
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Dwight Howard can opt out his contract after next season and become a free agent

The mandate hangs over the Orlando Magic with words spoken and unspoken, an understanding of the ultimate requirement necessary for sparing themselves the devastation of Dwight Howard’s(notes) departure as a free agent.

“Nothing short of a championship,” one league source insists is the burden the Magic are working under to hold onto Howard.

Privately, Magic general manager Otis Smith confessed to his closest associates this week that his franchise’s circumstances have become Cleveland and LeBron James(notes) all over again. The Magic are burying themselves deep into the luxury tax, taking on risky roster propositions and desperately trying to beat the clock to free agency in 2012. Deep down, Magic officials fear that Shaquille O’Neal(notes) long ago crafted the blueprint for leaving Orlando for the bright lights, big city.

For Howard to resist the inclination to test his star power in Los Angeles and New York, the Magic must make it impossible for him to leave. The Magic want him to sign an extension this summer, but that isn’t happening. The Magic had a good team, but good won’t keep Howard. So this is the reason one of the best teams in the NBA tore apart its roster – trading four of its top six players – and absorbed Gilbert Arenas(notes).

Perhaps the Magic had to take this risk, but no one’s rejoicing with Arenas’ arrival. When you’re chasing the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, the acquisition of Arenas doesn’t feel so much like salvation as it does desperation. Yet, Howard wanted him and Arenas has shown flashes of his old self, shown the possibilities are still there. “Gilbert got the Christmas present he wanted,” Arenas’ agent, Dan Fegan, said Saturday. “And [Wizards owner] Ted Leonsis was a class act to give to him.”

Even so, the Wizards weren’t trying to accommodate Arenas. They were extracting him. The Magic couldn’t get Chris Paul(notes) or Carmelo Anthony(notes), and Plan B turned out to be Jason Richardson(notes), Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and Arenas. And Plan B's almost never win championships.

Only now, Arenas finds something that’s so important to his success: He’s needed again. He won’t want to let down Smith, his old mentor in Golden State. Nor Howard, because this wouldn’t have happened without the franchise star wanting – even needing – Arenas.

For dramatically different reasons, Arenas and Howard promised to lose the clown acts this season. No more Agent Zero. No more Superman. Arenas had lost his license for foolery with a felony conviction, and Howard had lost his appetite by ultimately understanding that championship centers must be full-time tough guys. Smith told Arenas to be himself, but the guard ought to take that to mean the Magic need him to be a shot-maker, not a stand-up comic.

For Arenas, this is his chance to salvage something of his legacy. He’s been the scorer, the clown, the prankster, the tragic hero of the Wizards and the NBA. Maybe now, he can be the reason that Howard stays with the Magic. He never handled being some kind of a savior in Washington, but this time, the job’s different in Orlando: Save the savior.

Howard is such a beloved, popular figure in Orlando, the franchise center the Magic never believed could come along so soon after losing Shaq. As the sport’s next big centers are unable to find durability – Yao Ming(notes) to Greg Oden(notes) to Andrew Bynum(notes) – Howard has been an indestructible force for the Magic. He’s come so far. The front office wanted him to get serious, to stop the clowning and develop his offensive game. Howard’s delivered this season.

For everything else in this Eastern Conference – the Heat, the Celtics – there still is no answer for Howard. There’s no one like him in the East, no one close. Vince Carter(notes) let him down in the playoffs last season, and Howard found out he couldn’t count on Carter. As much as Howard liked him, this was true of Rashard Lewis(notes) too. Howard gets help now, gets change. Hedo had nothing left in Toronto, and even less in Phoenix. “They wanted to trade him halfway through training camp,” one league executive said. Yet, Turkoglu is thrilled to return to the Magic and maybe he can recapture something there. Richardson is an old Warriors teammate of Arenas, and he comes to match up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade(notes).

Most of all, these will be trades judged on Arenas, on what’s still important to him, what’s left of his abilities. All along, Arenas wanted a chance to play ball with Howard in Orlando. All along, he prayed this would be the trade to get him out of Washington, to free him of the bad circumstance he had created for himself.

It wouldn’t be Chris Paul or Carmelo Anthony walking into Howard’s Magic life, but a faded, damaged star who still thinks he can get his game right again, get his mind in sync with winning basketball. It’s been a long time, a long ride, but Howard was desperate to stay in this Eastern Conference arms race and wanted Arenas on his side.

No extension this summer, no bailout for Magic management. This is Cleveland circa 2008, when the payroll and luxury tax kept rising, when ownership stopped at nothing to satisfy its superstar. Howard isn’t a needy star for a franchise, except when it comes to what matters the most: He wants a championship supporting cast, a chance to stay in the fray with James and Wade, with Kevin Garnett(notes) and Rajon Rondo(notes).

The message has been delivered to Magic management in a clear way. Want to keep the indestructible franchise star? Want the league’s best center to re-sign for the long run? As the Magic GM tore apart one of the best teams in the NBA, the words hung over his every machination. To keep Dwight Howard, the mandate’s unmistakable: nothing short of a championship.

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