What a meanie.
Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith has been through a lot with the Howard saga over the past two seasons, and on Friday he said that the issue has finally trickled down from the front office to the players. The distractions of Howard's impending free agency and rumblings of his desire to play with Nets point guard Deron Williams are partly to blame for the underwhelming play of Nelson this season, Smith reasoned.
"You spend time talking about Chris Paul or Deron Williams, but what position do they play?" Smith said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "It's the same position that [Nelson] plays. So it's not necessarily that [Howard] is directly throwing him under the bus, but he's indirectly throwing him under the bus."
On the surface, this looks like a defense of Nelson, whose scoring, field goal attempts and free throw attempts per game have plummeted since his All-Star season of 2008-09. Is it really, though? Smith is saying, in essence, that Nelson is a kid who can have his feelings hurt by blasphemous talk that he might not be the best point guard in the world.
At last check, Nelson, 29, was a grown man who played four seasons at Saint Joseph's University, won the Naismith and Wooden awards as a senior, and has played in the NBA for eight seasons, including 39 playoff games. He is married and has a son, nicknamed "Deuce," and he bravely faced the death of his father, who in 2007 was found floating in the Delaware River in Chester, Pa.
Nelson has dealt with a lot worse than a teammate wanting to walk as a free agent. He's not playing well this season — in fact, he's been terrible — but it's not because of indirect speculation that Williams might be a little better than he is.
We point this out only to note that, on the most important matter of all, Smith has expertly played a potentially explosive situation. He's done so simply by not trading Howard, who visits Boston on Monday night to take on the Celtics.
Orlando is the best place for Howard, even if he doesn't fully realize it.
It's unclear what star players such as Howard envision awaits them in new locales. The Magic have spent seven years building their team around Howard, surrounding him with dangerous 3-point shooters, rugged rebounders and a point guard who has probably sacrificed his own statistics to accomodate Howard, the best big man in the game.
The other supposed suitors have, what? Howard supposedly dreams to teaming up with Williams on the Nets, but has he looked at the rest of that roster? Playing for the Lakers sounds nice until he realizes that, without Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (at least one of whom, if not both, would have to be sent to Orlando in any trade), the Lakers are a lot like the Magic, only with a constantly disgruntled Kobe Bryant to tolerate.
With Howard, the Magic are 11-4 and arguably have better team chemistry than any of the Eastern Conference's elite teams, save Chicago. (The 76ers and Pacers may top them all, but for now let's hold off on calling Philly or Indy "elite.")
Smith and the Magic clearly recognize that by keeping Howard, they stand a reasonable chance of making their second NBA Finals appearance in four years. The "trade him or he'll leave for nothing" logic is outdated. The collective bargaining agreement gives players favorable terms for re-signing with their old teams, so most notable free agents take part in sign-and-trades. The Celtics recently exercised this option to sign unrestricted free agent Glen Davis before shipping him to Orlando for Brandon Bass.
To recap the Magic's current options:
Keep Howard: They maintain one of the top four spots in the Eastern Conference, possibly make a deep playoff run and, at worst, sign-and-trade Howard this offseason for several young players and draft picks.
Trade Howard: First off, they lose the most dominant interior force in the NBA; plummet to the bottom of the standings; waste half a season of their young talent's development when the coaching staff inevitably would get cleared out after a dispiriting campaign; watch those draft picks they acquired fall to the end of the first round, because Howard will single-handedly yank his new team out of the draft lottery.
Either Smith, who has made some questionable deals in attempts to keep Howard in Orlando (Hello, Gilbert Arenas!), knows this or he has advisors reminding him of this. The Magic are better for now and for the near future with Howard, and Howard will be better in the short term and in the long run as a member of the Magic.
This should be the type of disappointment even Nelson can overcome.