- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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The people running the Nets did more to bring Dwight Howard to Brooklyn than the people running the borough did to keep the Dodgers there more than a half-century back. They offered Orlando everything but a lifetime supply of Nathan's footlongs and the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, and still the Magic refused to do the deal.
So Nets fans can't blame Billy King or Bobby Marks or any of the team officials involved in the franchise-making transaction that wasn't. They gambled on Deron Williams last season, and Deron Williams is now on record saying he'd already be in Dallas if those same Nets officials didn't gamble on Joe Johnson last week.
Nets fans can't blame Orlando's Rob Hennigan, either, as the NBA's latest Doogie Howser, GM, couldn't make the rookie mistake of trading the world's most talented big man at the end of talks that involved Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, a circle of late-first-round picks and all sorts of bottom-of-the-roster riffraff.
The man to blame is the man in Dwight Howard's mirror. He would've been a Net at the trade deadline, or this week during free agency, had he not agreed in March to opt in for one more season in Orlando, a move that never made any sense for someone who so desperately wanted to leave the Magic.
A move that ultimately cost Howard his dream pairing with Williams in Brooklyn.
The moment the megastar center agreed to surrender his freedom was the moment he empowered Magic management to do what it did Wednesday: Effectively tell the Nets to sign Lopez and get lost, at least until the winter, and remind Howard that a high-profile, high-salaried employee remains, you know, an employee.
The Nets maintained they decided to "move on" without Orlando's urging. In fact, as ESPNNewYork.com reported Tuesday afternoon, the Nets had set Wednesday as their do-or-die day with Howard, their day to either get their man or finally extricate themselves from this unholy mess.
Sure, Lopez could tear it up the first half of the 2012-13 season and send the Nets back to the table with Orlando in February, when, believe it or not, the Magic still might be trotting out Howard at center -- much to the amusement of the deposed Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith.
But right now, after agreeing to terms with Lopez, the Nets are saying they're forever done with Howard and ready to storm the perimeter of the New York Knicks' backyard with a core four of Williams, Johnson, Lopez and Gerald Wallace.
On Orlando's end, before the Nets' agreement with Lopez was made official, Hennigan swore the talks with Brooklyn weren't suspended but locked in "a stationary position." Of the Nets' offers and assets, the Magic GM said "there's not much there."
Truth is, it doesn't matter if the Nets believed they pulled out or if the Magic believed they applied the deep freeze to the talks. All that matters is this: Howard won't be the new face of Brooklyn, the player the Nets needed to challenge the Miami Heat at the top of the Eastern Conference and, potentially, to topple the Knicks as the No. 1 seed in New York.
It's his own fault, too. Howard screwed this thing up about as royally as he screwed up his own public image, an image that was pristine when he entered the league in 2004.
Back then, Howard was the antidote to LeBron James, who was the valedictorian of the previous high school class. James was the ultracontroversial, hyped-to-the-max phenom who drove a new Hummer. Howard was a "Finding Nemo" fan and son of a state trooper who drove a 1984 Crown Victoria and aspired to become president of the United States.
The only hint of controversy about him was his hope to someday see the crucifix as part of the NBA logo. Oh, and he said this when comparing his talent to LeBron's:
"I think I can surpass him."
Eight years later, Howard has surpassed James as a villain, not as a ballplayer. Long before he walked into that priceless shootaround scene with Van Gundy, embracing the very coach who had just buried him and his scheming ways to reporters, Howard had made Orlando the league's home office for chaos and dysfunction.
Brooklyn offered him an out, a chance to start over, a chance to win New York's first NBA championship in nearly 40 years and cleanse his public standing the way LeBron cleansed his.
But against the grain of common sense, Howard signed away his free agency and his best shot at the only franchise and market he wanted for the rest of his prime. He apparently was tired of being the bad guy, yet his actions since talking up his loyalty to Orlando have left him looking like a worse guy.
And for what? Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has taken on more than a quarter-billion dollars in long-term player commitments this month, and Howard won't be seeing a dime of it.
So Howard loses. The Nets lose. The Magic lose. Everyone loses except the Knicks, who were cowering under the prospect of a powerhouse next door.
The Nets should be a playoff team with a Williams-Johnson backcourt next season, a team worthy of a 6- or 7-seed in the East, something in that neighborhood. But they won't be beating out the Celtics in Year 1 of the new building in the new borough, never mind the Heat.
In the end, Nets fans can blame one person for this opportunity lost. Dwight Howard, the most unartful dodger Brooklyn has ever seen.
19hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann