There goes Dwight Howard, gone for the season, gone for the playoffs, maybe gone from Orlando forever. Back surgery took care of the first two, a procedure to repair a painful herniated disk in his lower back that will likely sideline him for the next four months, while a freshly scorched relationship with the team could take care of the third. Sources close to Howard insist he never made the reported phone call to Magic owner Rich DeVos during last Friday's loss to Atlanta declaring his intention to never play for Stan Van Gundy again, though it doesn't change the fact that he has no interest in continuing to do it.
Howard believes Van Gundy lied when he told reporters he knew Howard asked for his dismissal because, a league source familiar with the situation said, he never specifically did. There is no love lost between Howard and Van Gundy but sources close to the All-Star center said it was Orlando's front office that first approached him about canning Van Gundy in December, before the Magic's season deteriorated.
Howard has not forgotten management's silence on the subject, it's refusal to either fire Van Gundy when he hung Howard out to dry or, at the very least, publicly disclose all the facts. Howard quieted rampant speculation about his future when he waived his opt-out clause last month, but there are indications that over the next few months the relationship could sour to the point where Orlando could be forced to explore dealing Howard again.
New Jersey will call, as the Nets try to salvage the plan to move to Brooklyn next season with Howard and Deron Williams in tow. After a surprisingly strong end to March, the Nets have gone 3-6 so far in April, shelving Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace over the last two weeks in what only appears to be an attempt to put themselves in better position to hold onto a protected pick that will be transferred to Portland if it doesn't fall in the top three. The Mavericks, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and even the Heat, which could build a package around All-Star forward Chris Bosh, might get in the mix, too.
Teams will call and maybe, this time, the Magic will be more receptive. Relationships between a team and its superstar have gone south before (think Karl Malone and the Jazz, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers) only to eventually be repaired. But the Magic and Howard may have reached their breaking point. There is a part of Howard that wants to stay, that wants to continue being revered by a fan base that has supported him unflinchingly. He doesn't want to be LeBron James, but there are those close to him who say that the daily drama of the last month has bothered him so much that it is becoming increasingly more realistic that he could, again, ask to be moved.
The Magic understand they will never get equal value for Howard, who is owed about $19.5million next season, but consider this: What if New Jersey offers a pick that would yield Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Andre Drummond in a package that includes MarShon Brooks and more? What if the Lakers dangle Andrew Bynum and a sweetener? What if the Warriors, one of the few teams willing to take on Howard as a rental, offer Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry?
Howard is a transcendent talent, a one-man offensive and defensive force, but with this soap opera reaching a Greek tragedy-like level and with the likelihood that next season will bring more of the same, moving Howard may become more appealing.
Some within the Magic thought Howard was exaggerating his back problems earlier this month. They thought it was a power play by a player who over the last eight years has been given nothing but power. It turns out it wasn't, that Howard's back was worse than anyone really knew. It's another wild turn in a wild storyline, one that likely won't be its last.