On Tuesday night when the Lakers visit, Orlando will welcome Dwight Howard the way it does August humidity, rolling out a red carpet laced with rusty nails and hot coals. His first seven years with the Magic will be forgotten. His final year won't.
See, that's how it goes sometimes. Memory gets selective in these situations. It's like a marriage that suddenly falls off a cliff at the end, allowing bitterness to overcome all the bliss. Not to excuse Howard and the clumsy way he forced his way out of town, but this is a perfect example where everyone involved will be so consumed with the divorce that everything else becomes a blur and a distortion.
A week ago Howard told a TV station he was surrounded by teammates "nobody wanted" in Orlando and that he nonetheless "played with a smile on my face." The Orlando media raced to his teammates for an angry reaction, got what they wanted, then ran it without any clarification from Howard. After the predictable storm hit the fan, Howard explained that he played with a group of underdogs and wasn't trying to insult anyone.
Well, in a sense, his unintended point was correct. He didn't have teammates anyone wanted. If the Magic put any decent talent around him, he'd still be in Orlando.
Howard gets all the blame for how it went down in Orlando and certainly deserves a measure of it. But disaster should be shared. The Magic wasted most of his best years with shoddy front office work that never produced a co-star. Howard was a lead singer who couldn't hit the high notes; anyone who ever watched him shoot free throws and pivot in the post would agree to that. Still, his exit was the result of an eight-year plan gone wrong.
The first and biggest mistake was when the Magic, worried that Howard would leave them dry like Shaquille O'Neal did, panicked and gave six years and $118 million to Rashard Lewis in 2007. They weren't bidding against anyone. Nobody was offering, say, $115 million. And even if someone did, why overpay Lewis by $40 million or so? Lewis made one All-Star Game with the Magic. He hit a big shot against Cleveland in the playoffs. That was it for the major highlights. Three years into that contract he was little more than a three-point shooter, and an average one at that. And he tested positive for a banned substance. The Orlando salary cap never recovered, and the team was forced to trade him for Gilbert Arenas, one eyesore for another.
Some players were has-beens when they came to Orlando to help Howard: Steve Francis, Vince Carter, Jason Williams. Some were never-has-beens: Darko Milicic, Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson, Tony Battie. The Magic refused to match a free agent offer for Hedo Turkoglu when they should have, then traded for him when they shouldn't. They gave up Brandon Bass for Big Baby Davis. They surrendered Marcin Gortat to dump Carter. J.J. Redick was a disappointment his first three years in the NBA. The only reasonable talents were Ryan Anderson (one good season in Orlando, largely helped by Howard's presence) and Jameer Nelson (one All-Star appearance).
Therefore, who's really to blame for the rebuilding you see in Orlando: Howard, or the front office? Seriously, was any player mentioned above ever wanted by anyone? Maybe Turkoglu, and the Raptors regretted signing him five minutes after the ink dried.
History will be hastily rewritten if not forgotten when Howard steps into a $300 million arena he helped build. He carried Orlando to the NBA Finals and made the Magic relevant for several years. He also couldn't decide whether to stay or go and pushed his coach off the plank. That, more than anything else, will create the type of greeting he'll get when he returns.
But at least give the fans credit for being pretty smart. You know how they're showing their disappointment in management? By not showing up to see an 18-46 team.