The odds of Dwight Howard still being in an Orlando uniform at the NBA's All-Star break seemed fairly low a few months ago.
But unless something completely unexpected happens, it's pretty clear that Howard, the leading vote-getter on the All-Star balloting, will represent the Magic during the Feb. 24-26 festivities in Orlando.
In fact, it looks as though he'll be in a Magic uniform for the rest of the season, which seemed unfathomable after he demanded a trade last month.
Usually, an organization buckles and caves when a star makes a trade demand, but Orlando's management has stood its ground so far.
The inflexibility is noteworthy, and not just because keeping Howard has helped the Magic to an 11-5 record and second place in the Southeast Division. It's noteworthy, too, because it's setting an important example for other small-market teams. Sure, it's a gamble. Howard's trade demand could have had a negative impact on the Magic's chemistry and potentially ruined their season. And if he decides not to re-sign at the end of the season, Orlando could be left with nothing or be forced into a lopsided sign-and-trade agreement.
Other teams -- the Lakers, Knicks and Nets, for example, all of whom have been mentioned as possible next stops in Howard's career -- are keeping a close eye on how this situation unfolds. But for now, the Magic are handling things the right way.
The power play between Howard and the Magic is significant because one of the themes of the NBA lockout was that small-market teams need to even the playing field to improve competitive balance in the NBA. Even before the lockout, the narrative was that small-market teams weren't attractive destinations for the NBA's biggest stars -- which is pure baloney. LeBron James and Chris Bosh teamed up with Dwyane Wade in Miami because it seemed to give them an inside track to winning a title. If they were just desperate to play in a big market, then signing with the Chicago Bulls would have made a lot more sense.
In today's NBA, a topflight player creates his own market. That's why Russell Westbrook signed a long-term deal in Oklahoma City. He'll be playing alongside Kevin Durant, one of the two or three best players in the world, for the next five seasons. (Durant re-upped with the Thunder last summer.) With those two as the Thunder's centerpieces, Oklahoma City should be an attractive destination for other players now.
Put together, the Westbrook and Howard situations set important examples for other small-market teams. If you draft well and leverage wisely, a small-market team has every opportunity keep a big star.
Orlando has three things going for it in its effort to manipulate Howard into staying: money, a winning record and his desire to be liked. If Howard chooses to go to another team as a free agent, it could cost him $30 million, since the collective bargaining agreement allows the Magic, as the team that drafted him, to offer him the most money.
The salary should be enough to make even Howard -- who is earning close to $18 million this season -- uncomfortable about leaving.
Some NBA stars might be egomaniacs, but few of them want to be cast in a bad light. Most players don't even have the guts to ask for a trade themselves. They use their agents, representatives and other back channels to make their true feelings known so they can have plausible deniability with their home teams' fans. During his trade drama in Denver last season, Carmelo Anthony always insisted he never asked for a trade, even though it was so obvious he wanted to be with the New York Knicks that he might as well have put it on a Times Square billboard.
Howard said in early December that he wants to be traded, but he has been backpedaling ever since. And despite Monday night's awful loss to the Boston Celtics -- somehow, the Magic managed to score just 56 points against a team that was without five players -- Orlando has been playing well, which is making Howard's decision that much tougher. In the trade demand last month, he indicated that his biggest issue was that the Magic didn't have the right pieces to compete for an NBA championship. But the way they've played so far this season, they might be a dangerous team in the playoffs.
If the Magic were losing, trading him would be a foregone conclusion, and few could blame him for wanting to leave. But demanding a trade from a playoff-bound team reflects poorly on Howard, who isn't comfortable being a villain.
This isn't to say that small-market teams don't have more challenges than big-market teams. Small-market teams, such as Orlando, can't afford to make significant personnel mistakes. A bad draft or an unwise investment in a free agent could set a small-market franchise back several years. Big-market teams, such as the Lakers and the Knicks, are storied franchises that can recover financially from bad deals more quickly and still land free agents when their teams aren't that good.
As bad as the Knicks have been in recent years, Amare Stoudemire and Anthony both considered New York to be desirable because the city's huge media market guarantees them opportunities they didn't have in Phoenix or Denver.
But small-market teams can compete if they're smart and they get a star who is committed. Howard, for example, could do for Orlando exactly what Durant is doing for Oklahoma City. Howard should commit to the Magic and then persuade someone like Deron Williams, who also will be a free agent this summer, to join him. Wade recruited Bosh and James to South Beach. Considering Howard is unchallenged as the best big man in the NBA, you would think that would be a huge draw for a point guard.
Perhaps the best blueprint for success for small-market teams belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, where Thunder general manager Sam Presti has roots. The Spurs held on to Tim Duncan, drafted wisely and attracted plenty of smart veterans who were willing to take reduced roles to further the team's success.
The Magic still could lose Howard, but in this shortened season, they could make a serious postseason run. They just need their superstar to lead the way.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.