The fresh-faced CEO of the Orlando Magic tries to speak to Dwight Howard daily, pushing hard to accelerate a relationship with the franchise's most important asset. He's late to the job, to the recruitment and understands 7½ years are difficult to replicate in his personal window of 90 days. Outside, everyone else tells Alex Martins: Give in to the inevitable, find an acceptable package and trade Dwight Howard.
"It seems that way, doesn't it?" Martins told Yahoo! Sports.
The March 15 trade deadline is approaching, and the Magic are still telling teams to spare them the trade calls unless they're offering a player to join Howard. Martins is a businessman, and sources say he played a part in rejecting the deal that general manager Otis Smith would've done with the New Jersey Nets in January. Martins has a chance to be the hero who saves the franchise star in Orlando, a fast-coming executive fighting the clock on Howard's opt-out.
"I've been at this for 90 days – not seven years – and if I'm going to have an influence on the process, I need to utilize as much as time as we possibly can before we make a decision," Martins says. "And I've built a good relationship with him. We've had good conversations with him and some of his people.
"That gives me hope."
An NBA franchise has to always sell one of two things: hope and winning. For the Magic to have traded Howard upon his demand in the preseason, it would've cost them so much more than their basketball future: tickets, sponsorships, arena concessions and, ultimately, possible playoff revenue. The Magic are winning games with the deadline approaching, creating a cushion to still make the playoffs should they move Howard at the deadline.
Still, rival teams believe no one in the organization wants to tell the Magic's 85-year-old owner, Rich DeVos, that they recommend trading him. Several sources who've known Howard for years believe his hesitancy with Orlando management has helped validate Martins' hope of re-signing him. As one of those sources said, "Don't underestimate how much it means to Dwight to be a pillar in that community. Everyone else wants to pull him out of there, but I'm not so sure that's where his heart is."
What makes it harder for Howard to be emphatic with Martins and his teammates that he absolutely wants out is that he disdains confrontation. He doesn't want to be unpopular – not in that city, not in that locker room. "Dysfunctional" is the word one locker-room source uses to describe the Magic this season, and yet as Martins told Yahoo! Sports: "This team has competed incredibly well with that cloud hanging over it."
The Magic are 25-14, third in the Eastern Conference and clearly can make a case for themselves as the best of the rest behind Miami and Chicago. Is that enough for the Magic? For Howard? In the end, probably not, but the Magic aren't enamored with the trade options available to them.
Several teams believe the Magic won't trade Howard, and that's why those teams won't bother getting involved in talks with them. The New York Knicks refuse to engage the Magic, if simply because they don't want players like Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler affected by talks that organization officials privately believe would go nowhere anyway.
Yes, the Nets are still Howard's desired destination, but GM Billy King still hasn't had a substantive conversation with Smith lately. Orlando has made it clear to everyone that it's a buyer to find help for Howard, not a seller. Yet, most teams believe the Magic will eventually realize they simply don't have the assets to bring back a significant player to join Howard. Several executives insist forward Ryan Anderson has the most value to teams, and the Magic are determined to re-sign him to a long-term deal.
"They're going to reach a dead end here," one rival executive said. "It's just a matter of time."
The Nets believe they have a clear path to sign Howard in free agency this summer, and still hold onto Brook Lopez to play alongside him. Perhaps everything changes should Dallas a find a way to unload Shawn Marion and the $18 million owed him over the next two years, because that will clear the way to amnesty center Brendan Hayward and make significant free-agent offers to Howard and Deron Williams.
The Nets are counting on Williams staying with them and recruiting Howard on July 1, but Dallas does represent home to Williams. It is appealing to him. Still, the Nets can pay the most money for Williams and Howard and, ultimately, that counts for so much. Now, the Magic promise to make everyone keep waiting on them, on the recruitment of Howard, because Plan B and Plan C and Plan D are so unappealing in Orlando. The reason's simple. "We have to use as much possible time as can we before making a final decision," Martins said.
Perhaps that time is March 15, perhaps it's the end of the season. Eventually, there's a moment of truth coming for the Magic and Howard. For now, they're still trying to be buyers. They're desperately trying to hold onto him. For now, Dwight Howard still plays for the Magic.
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- Dwight Howard