By Sam Amick
Orlando center Dwight Howard has agreed to return to the Magic next season, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
After reversing course numerous times in recent days and refusing to sign the necessary paperwork on Wednesday afternoon, Howard signed a waiver on the early termination option of his contract Thursday afternoon, thereby guaranteeing he will return for the final year of his deal (worth $19.5 million).
His agent, Dan Fegan, was initially believed to be required to sign a separate document, as well, but sources say the NBA agreed to execute the waiver without any involvement from the agent. Specifically, it was a verification from the agent that no side deals were agreed upon as part of the ETO agreement.
The Magic have called a press conference for Thursday afternoon to announce the news, and so the NBA's latest superstar saga has finally come to an end. But not without a litany of twists and turns that came to an end early this morning.
After a crazy day of waffling by the All-Star center, sources close to the situation say he told Magic officials to meet him at the airport when the plane from San Antonio landed early Thursday. He was ready to sign the paperwork, to commit to one more season in Central Florida just hours before the NBA's 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.
But a deal like this shouldn't go through at 3 a.m., the Magic decided, and it couldn't be finalized regardless because it was believed that Fegan had to sign the necessary documents, as well. So they thanked their franchise player for his latest change of heart in deciding to waive his early termination option, then told him to come by the office the next day to finalize the deal.
In an interview with RealGM.com conducted before he left San Antonio, Howard expressed his love for the city of Orlando and said he'd be returning.
"Man, listen, you know my heart, my soul and everything I have is in Orlando," Howard told RealGM. "I just can't leave it behind.
"I have gotten some bad advice. I apologize for this circus I have caused to the fans of our city. They didn't deserve none of this. I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart. I will do whatever I can to make this right and do what I was put in Orlando to do."
But even he couldn't say whether he could close this deal, whether the pressure to get him to a bigger market and on a new deal that actually pays his representatives (who didn't cut his last contract) would be felt yet again.
And so the basketball world waited.
The New Jersey Nets were left waiting, too, their two-season plan suddenly laid on the line with the reality that Howard might stay put and almost no time left to retool before the trade buzzer sounded. They traded for point guard Deron Williams in February 2011 as a precursor to getting Howard, either now or this summer, and now Williams would likely be gone as a free agent this summer if the big man doesn't play along with their plan. The new Barclays Center in Brooklyn that's set to open next season might not have any stars inside at its outset, the worst of possibilities for Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov and general manager Billy King.
The Dwight debacle had reached a new low late Wednesday, when Howard and Fegan informed Magic officials that he would not commit to returning next season just hours after he told them that he would.
It was a dramatic about-face that could not have been worse for Howard's already-battered image, setting the stage for a possible exit that would rival LeBron James' exodus from Cleveland when it comes to public relations disasters.
Sources made it clear the Magic were prepared to trade Howard before Thursday's deadline unless he gave a commitment beyond this season. Team officials took great exception to Howard's comments Tuesday night that the Magic needed to "roll the dice" on his future by not trading him, and -- as was first reported by ESPN.com -- the team appeared determined to do a deal unless he offered some assurances in the form of the final year of his deal.
"[The Magic] can't assume all the risk," one source said early Wednesday. "There's just no way the [Shaquille O'Neal] situation is going to happen all over again. That's the undercurrent here."