Dwight Howard will not play again this season, and it will not be because he wants to gain leverage in potential contract extension talks this summer or to protest Stan Van Gundy's continued employment as head coach of the Orlando Magic.
Howard will miss the rest of the season, the Magic announced Thursday, because he will undergo back surgery, wiping out his plans not only to play in the NBA playoffs but to play for Team USA this summer in the Olympics as well.
And with that, anyone who speculated that the herniated disc in Howard's back was merely imaginary, a creation to once again exert his control over the Magic franchise, should be ashamed. The backtracking among those who had such gall began as early as late Thursday, but hedging is not enough. Howard, for all the angst he has caused in Orlando this season, deserves an apology.
The bulk of the drama that occurred this season was primarily of Howard's making. He never had to make his impending free agency a reason for daily headlines, with Nets point guard Deron Williams supplying the blueprint of to may handle a touchy subject with some semblance of class. Howard did not need to go to management to try to get one of the best coaches in the game fired, no matter how one feels about the Magic front office violating Howard's trust and relaying his message back to Van Gundy. At every turn, whenever Howard's saga appeared to be ready to expire from the news cycle, the center or his "camp" popped up with some unnecessary sound byte to keep the folks at ESPN First Take occupied.
It is also fair to point out the noticeable drop in Howard's performance this season. The numbers are still strong — despite Kevin Love's insane stretch in March, Howard was the NBA's leading rebounder at 14.5 boards per game — but for seven seasons Howard's game burst with joy and vigor, and those traits mostly have been absent this season. His field goal percentage was at a three-year low, and his free throw percentage dropped to a career-low 49 percent this year after hovering near a respectable 60 percent for the last six seasons.
Had Howard not opted in for the final year of his contract with the Magic, it was worth wondering which version of Howard his free agent suitors would be pursuing. He was still the biggest difference-maker of any center in the league, but the gap between him and the second-best center was no longer as wide.
Implying that Howard was faking an injury — or even exaggerating its severity — is another matter entirely. An Orlando TV report hinted that Howard would miss the playoffs even if he was healthy, so deep was his disdain for Van Gundy. A few stories openly wondered if Howard was privately taking pleasure in the Magic's middling 3-3 record since he went down, contrasting that to the Magic's 33-21 record with him to illustrate his value.
But the way Howard reacted after wrenching his back in Philadelphia could not be faked, similar to the flu-like symptoms Michael Jordan exhibited in the 1997 NBA Finals. Jordan's epic performance was only possible to laugh off as acting until a person actually ended up with the flu and was laid out in bed. The way Howard winced and the way he leaned on his knees afterward could only be done by a person in real pain.
The Magic are not the same team without Howard. They are not terrible, but they are just average enough to beat struggling teams like the Cavaliers or 76ers and to lose to quality teams like the Hawks and Celtics, and they are just bad enough to lose shockers to squads like the Wizards. The Magic are not championship contenders, as they appeared to be as recently as February with Howard.
What Howard is not — and what no professional athlete can be accused of being by any member of the non-athlete populace — is a malingerer. Accuse him of poor play or poor choices, but do not forget that his body is literally his business. It may be fair to distrust him when he talks about his contract status or his relationship with his coach, but if he says his body is telling him he cannot play, we should take his word for it, surgery or not.