The Dwight Howard debacle reached a new low late Wednesday, when the Orlando center and his agent, Dan Fegan, informed Magic officials that he would not commit to returning next season just hours after he told them that he would.
It was a dramatic about-face that could not have been worse for Howard's already-battered image, setting the stage for a possible exit that would rival LeBron James' exodus from Cleveland when it comes to public relations disasters.
And now that the Magic have been teased and tantalized by the indecisive Howard one final time, the stance that they began the day would appear to be back in play: without any assurances that he'll stay beyond this season, sources had said the team was prepared to trade him before Thursday's 3 p.m. ET deadline. Yet if anything has proven true when it comes to the NBA's latest circus of the star, it's that certainties are hard to come by. Sources said Howard's refusal to commit in writing isn't necessarily an indication that he doesn't want to remain with the Magic, and the chance remains that they will, as Howard put it, "roll the dice" and keep him past Thursday.
According to sources, Howard told the Magic earlier in the day that he would be willing to waive the early termination option on his contract that allowed him to become a free agent this summer and play out the final year on his deal (worth $19.5 million). But the Magic told Howard that they would need a waiver of the early termination option in writing to be signed by both him and his agent and issued said documents to him, and then they waited as the afternoon wore on for the paperwork that never came. His change of heart came in a conference call that took place before Orlando played at San Antonio.
Sources close to the situation told SI.com earlier Wednesday that Howard was considering that option but that he was being pressured by his representatives to instead enter free agency. That influence was a point of frustration for the Magic, as Howard would routinely express a willingness to stay only to reverse course after consulting with his agency. It's worth noting that Howard's current agent is not on the books for his current contract and would not be paid on his client unless there is a new deal.
Before the latest development, sources made it clear the Magic were prepared to trade Howard before Thursday's deadline unless he gave a commitment beyond this season. Team officials took great exception to Howard's comments Tuesday night that the Magic needed to "roll the dice" on his future by not trading him, and -- as was first reported by ESPN.com -- the team appeared determined to do a deal unless he offered some assurances in the form of the final year of his deal in 2012-13 (worth $19.5 million).
"[The Magic] can't assume all the risk," one source said early Wednesday. "There's just no way the [Shaquille O'Neal] situation is going to happen all over again. That's the undercurrent here."
While anything could change in this debacle that has overshadowed the Magic's stellar season, sources had said owner Rich DeVos is resigned to the reality that he needs to get something in return for Howard if he won't offer a commitment. DeVos lost O'Neal to the Lakers when he was a free agent in 1996, but the frustration this time around is far greater because of the way in which the Magic have handled Howard.
The financial considerations that drove O'Neal away are a non-factor, as the Magic are prepared to give Howard a five-year, maximum contract. They have tried aggressively to surround him with talent in recent years, as well, and even given him some say in personnel moves. Yet no matter how much Howard wants to have it all -- to finish the season with his surging team while avoiding the gutting of rosters of teams he might wind up on via trade -- the Magic want the commitment that they might be close to getting.
Meanwhile, Nets general manager Billy King is well aware he could risk losing Howard this summer via free agency if he doesn't find a way to land him now. Sources also say the Lakers and even the Knicks are among the teams who have engaged with the Magic in recent days.
Howard has told close friends that he doesn't want to play for the Lakers, but deals have been discussed between the two teams with the shared hope that he would change his stance.
While Golden State's trade for Milwaukee center Andrew Bogut on Tuesday took the Warriors out of the running for Howard in what would have been a "rental" situation, Houston remains willing to trade for Howard without any assurances that he will re-sign.
Chicago has been hopeful that Howard would agree to sign with the Bulls long-term, but a deal on that front remains unlikely unless that changes. As a result, the Magic have to engage in trade talks and will do so until the paperwork is filed.