Could this be the last season in Orlando for franchise poster-boy Dwight Howard? If the front office sees sense, it should be

Dwight Howard’s decision yesterday that he wants to stay in Orlando – this season, and possibly next season – was a stunning about-turn for a man who has been openly courting trade rumours since the middle of 2011. And beyond that, it resembled a massive slap in the face for everyone involved in the Magic organisation.

Amid all the stories, rumours, make-believe and hyperbole coming out of central Florida in the last two or three weeks have been some positively disturbing suggestions. The idea that team president Alex Martins told Howard that he could choose whether or not GM Otis Smith and head coach Stan Van Gundy were fired or retained was particularly troubling – if only because it’s not that hard to believe that this might actually be true.

The Howard situation has hung like a dark cloud over Orlando’s entire streaky, mostly disappointing season. Even though Ryan Anderson is having a career year, the majority of players on the Magic roster – Glen Davis, Jason Richardson, the fading Hedo Turkoglu – have struggled to produce. Jameer Nelson is having yet another difficult season. Van Gundy has had to combine his coaching duties with those of a psychotherapist, battling manfully to hold his squad together as it suffers in silence from Howard’s selfish games.

We all know the story by now. Howard has a list of three preferred destinations (New Jersey, Dallas, the Lakers). He has provided the Magic a list of players they must acquire to convince him to stay. He isn’t keen on Smith, whose position as GM right now is little more than a figurehead. And yet, as the Magic have stood pat, Howard continues to consider and re-consider his demands without ever committing firmly to staying or leaving. The whole charade has shown a terrible resemblance to those of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, two other ugly games of trade-or-free-agency roulette the NBA is trying to forget.

Howard allegedly requested certain players were brought to Orlando - but one of them, his buddy Glen Davis (right), has had a tough first year in Disney World (AP)

Reportedly, the center told each of his teammates after he ‘committed’ exactly what he thought they needed to do to improve the team’s form. Hopefully, at least one of them had the guts to stand up and tell Dwight that he’s been the problem. On the outside, the shot-blocking, rebounding superstar is usually as playful and cheery a character as you can get in this league – but this year, he’s been poisonous to the atmosphere and morale of his organisation.

Now that Howard has – seemingly – committed for this year, there is the potential that the Magic can move on and at least focus on the rest of this season. But even if Dwight does plan to stay beyond this year, what happens next season when his contract is up? Will NBA fans be forced to go through the whole mess again? analyst David Aldridge reported via the website’s Hang Time Blog last night that sources have confirmed to him Howard will not opt-in for the final year of his contract. Obviously this leaves the Magic in a mess; they now have less than 18 hours, at time of publication, to find a deal for the center. That will be difficult, but it must be done – the Magic cannot afford to be left without Howard with the rest of this roster. But what if, as had been reported by other sources earlier in the day, Howard does intend to remain in Orlando for another year?

Orlando’s situation is perilous. Howard is the face of the franchise, and massively popular in Florida. On the court, he’s their anchor, the key to the performance of their legion of outside shooters and their only credible post scorer. But his indecisiveness – reticence, even – is holding back this team. If Howard does commit to the 2012-13 season, Orlando suddenly gains a massive advantage – they have this summer to do the right thing and trade him.

Other teams should be rather more receptive to the idea of taking Howard in the off-season, when they have time to build chemistry and add free-agents around his undeniable talent. Orlando gets the benefit of sending Howard away without having to change its approach on the fly – because when Howard does leave, everything the ballclub tries to do is going to have to be rethought. In addition, given 2012’s monster draft class, the Magic will have the opportunity to try to snag one or two rookies in return for Howard and look to the long-term for the first time in three years.

At some point in the next 16 months, it is highly likely that the Magic will lose Dwight’s services for good. It may as well be on their own terms. If they gamble on keeping him beyond the summer of 2013, the franchise risks a much longer and much more painful rebuild.

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