ORLANDO, Fla. – This was the window into the basketball abyss of the Orlando Magic, the post-Apocalyptic rubble promising to remain in the wake of Dwight Howard's departure. For all of Shaquille O'Neal's bluster, Andrew Bynum hadn't come to audition for the job, but reframe the dramatic gulf that exists between Howard and everyone else. Privately, the Magic understand where a trade for Bynum leaves them: out of the playoffs, out of relevance.
For this reason, the Magic should play out the season with Howard. No trade, no concessions. That's the franchise's inclination now, and that's what the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers are beginning to believe will happen. All that needs to happen in the Eastern Conference playoffs are Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade going down, and Howard could get the Magic over the top.
"Orlando is too good to trade him now," believes one front office executive who has communicated with Magic general manager Otis Smith recently.
The Magic are 11-4 and good. They're really good. The Magic's reluctance to meet Howard's trade demands are simple: They're willing to test his mettle. Want to leave as a free agent and take $30 million less on the market? We dare you. It's a risky strategy, but the Magic know Howard better than anyone else. And they know he's inclined to change his mind on leaving because he's changed his mind on a lot of things here. And come July, Orlando could still get something back for him in a sign-and-trade scenario.
So why not let the schedule play out and see how deep they can get into this discombobulated lockout season?
Howard wanted to embarrass Bynum on Friday night, and he did that, obliterating him and the Lakers. Shaq had declared Bynum the NBA's best center, and Smith had blamed Howard's courtship of Chris Paul and Deron Williams for the uneven play of point guard Jameer Nelson. "He indirectly [threw] him under the bus," Smith told the Orlando Sentinel.
[ Related: Dwight Howard is tired of Shaq's old gripes ]
This is an awkward season for the Magic, but somehow it's becoming a rebirth of the supporting cast's fit with Howard. After a sluggish start to the season, Howard's been spectacular. He had come to punish people on Friday and did it in a devastating way to Bynum: 21 points, 23 rebounds and long, loud standing ovations in a forgiving town that still doesn't give him a hard time about a trade demand.
"People have used the word 'engaged' or 'disengaged' with Dwight," Magic guard J.J. Redick told Yahoo! Sports. "Well, he's been very engaged. He's been the Dwight that I've known for six years. There hasn't been a letup in his effort or his effort to lead."
The Magic have a way about them, a chemistry, crispness, an understanding of how to balance 3-point shooting and a dominant center. In this Eastern Conference, they have a chance to distance themselves from everyone but Chicago and Miami.
Stan Van Gundy isn't a good, but great coach. Howard will never find better, and will appreciate Van Gundy far more once he's out of his life. Van Gundy's never been afraid to coach Howard, never felt like he had to coddle him. He's challenged him, pushed him and people probably don't realize how that's impacted Howard's disposition to dominate now. Few coaches scheme better, and fewer could make the pedestrian talent surrounding Howard work so well.
The Lakers have been willing to give the Magic a choice of Bynum and Pau Gasol. Here's the thing, though: Howard doesn't want the Lakers to gut the roster for him. He wants to play with Gasol, and would encourage the Lakers to resist trading both its big men to the Magic. Between now and the March 15 trade deadline, don't discount the possibility that Howard tells the Magic to forget his trade demand. If he's going to sign with the Nets as a free agent, he can do it without them having to trade every asset except for Williams to get him.
For now, the Magic are playing tough-minded winning basketball on the road. Everyone expected them to dissolve into the dysfunction that comes out of these trade demands, but it hasn't happened. Van Gundy is too good, the roster is comprised of too many mature, competent pros. No one saw this coming, and that probably includes Howard himself.
"I think because we had such a flameout in the conference finals two years ago, and such a disappointing season last year, people have discounted us," Redick said. "We were under so much scrutiny for that [Gilbert Arenas] trade, and then we lose in the first round to the Hawks. So yeah, people did discount us.
"But as long as we have No. 12, we're a contender in the East."
For now, the Magic still have No. 12, and there's no rush to send him out of town. The Lakers had come and gone to Orlando, and they witnessed for themselves the gulf between the best center in basketball and the second-best. Howard could change everything for the Lakers, the Nets, the Mavericks, but Orlando knows most of all: Changing everything includes his mind.
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