Howard's primary priority: himself

CHICAGO -- It would be easy to blame the Miami Heat for all of this. Partly because it's fun to blame them for everything, but mostly because it really feels like it is largely their fault.

The Boston Celtics may have started the idea of the Big Three and legitimized it with domination of the league a few years ago. But the Miami Heat and their unique blend of player empowerment has turned it into something that has thrown the pursuit of winning out of whack.

How else to explain Dwight Howard's frantic desire to build his brand outside of the city that drafted him? How else to explain the concept of brand-building in the first place?

In ancient times, no one considered the possibility of Larry Bird joining forces with Magic Johnson, or Michael Jordan wanting to team up with Isiah Thomas, least of all those players themselves. Though changes in the salary cap make it tough to compare eras, no one disputed the fact that players were loyal to their teams and disliked their rivals, case closed.

If Howard departs Orlando for another team, he will be leaving potentially $30 million on the table. So it's more complicated than merely painting him with the broad brush of a super ego who cares nothing about winning.

And Howard's 29 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks in Orlando's 99-94 victory over the Bulls on Thursday night to snap Chicago's eight-game win streak, hammered home once again the breadth of a truly special talent.

But team loyalty and the sheer drive to win for winning's sake sure seems to be something different than those in Chicago have witnessed in Derrick Rose.

When Howard slammed home a rebound on Joakim Noah's head with 39 seconds left in the second quarter and the rim could be heard rattling clear up to the less-expensive seats as Orlando took a 37-22 lead over the Bulls, you could also hear the collective sigh from the United Center fans.

When he blatantly goal-tended on a Taj Gibson shot early in the second, Howard laughed.

Howard is a funny guy, some might say funny like a clown. And he was both funny and pleasant Thursday morning following the Magic's shootaround when he did solid, if not quite "Saturday Night Live" quality impressions of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and, for the benefit of the locals, Phil Jackson.

"Scottie, give it to Mike," he croaked hoarsely as Scottie Pippen just happened to walk by.

It was good stuff. But while Howard talks repeatedly about "having fun" on and off the court, Rose, who has a healthy sense of humor, speaks only of winning. It's why he was almost cranky when asked if all the Howard trade talk was getting old.

"I'm sick and tired of hearing it," Rose said. "Like I've said, this city speaks for itself. Chicago, marketing-wise, is a great city. If someone chooses to come here, they definitely could, but I'm cool with the teammates that I have."

In Orlando, where they write songs about Howard and remain loyal to a center who has done just about everything to indicate he's leaving town, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and Howard's teammates have weathered Howard's transparency en route to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.

But it has not been easy. And few if anyone other than maybe a couple of Howard's cohorts would call it fun.

Rose got his laughs Thursday night from hitting another buzzer-beater -- this time at the end of the first half to cut an 18-point second-quarter Magic lead to five -- and receiving a ferocious chest bump from Noah.

But he was anything but all smiles as the Bulls' poor shooting down the stretch failed to overcome the Magic's own sudden problems in that area as Orlando rebounded from its last outing -- an embarrassing 16-point loss to Charlotte.

"You get what you deserve in this league," coach Tom Thibodeau said of the Bulls' loss, repeating a favorite mantra and one that his star pupil would not dispute.

"I just missed shots," Rose said of his second poor outing in that department, refusing to assign it to fatigue accrued by having just finished a four-game-in-five-night stretch.

Rose's mother calls her youngest son "an old soul." How that translates to his career is obvious. He wants to win because that's what the game is about, because it's the purest kind of thrill for him, because he is seemingly incapable of looking at it any other way.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a rare virtue among today's NBA stars, many of whom may talk about wanting to find teams that can win while few are clamoring to play in Minnesota with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.

"[Rose is] a guy who's just all about winning and making his teammates better," said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, who sounded like he may have been sending a not-so-subtle message. "It's not about him. It's not about gaining publicity and attention. It's not about his numbers. It's just about winning games."

While the teaming of Rose and Howard may be the recipe for a great Adidas commercial, it is not necessarily a good match of basketball philosophies.

And while the Heat may be an enticing example for others to follow in the copycat world of sports, Howard may need to be reminded that it was a Dallas team in a secondary market with a conventional makeup that walked away champs last season.