By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - Dwight Howard is the face of the Orlando Magic franchise but the towering center and scoring leader's uncertain future in Florida following a trade request is taking its toll on team morale.
The Magic, one season on from a first-round loss in the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs, are battling the Miami Heat for the Southeast division crown but Howard's future and how it may impact his team mates remains high on the agenda.
"All these rumors are flying around and guys are worried about who else is going to be in the (possible) deal," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters before a 92-88 road win over the Toronto Raptors put them within four games of Miami.
"It's not an easy thing but none of us have any control over it and so it's just a matter of staying focused on what we can control... I am not going to say we've been perfect or great in our focus all the time but we've done a pretty good job."
Howard, 26, who was drafted first overall by Orlando in 2004 and led the team to three consecutive division titles from 2008, requested a trade ahead of the current lockout-shortened season in December, expressing a desire to explore pastures new.
If the Magic (25-14) do not move the six-times All-Star and three-times defensive player of the year by the March 15 trade deadline, they risk losing him for free in July when he can become a free agent.
For Magic fans who watched Shaquille O'Neal leave Orlando for nothing in 1996 prior to winning three NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers and one with Miami, the possibility of losing Howard under similar circumstances is not sitting well.
The attention on Howard's future is the most directed at any prospective free agent since two-time NBA most valuable player LeBron James went on national television to announce his much-publicized move to Miami in 2010.
"It's not a distraction on the court," said Magic guard J.J. Redick, whose three-pointer in the final 10 seconds proved to be the game-winning shot.
"But it's on guys' minds obviously if your name is in a trade rumor. Even if it's just a little five percent (distraction) it's going to affect you a little bit."
Howard, who entered Monday's game averaging 20.4 points and a league-high 15 rebounds per game this season, would be a hot commodity for teams seeking to complement their roster in anticipation of a deep playoff run.
Known as Superman because of the red cape he attired during the NBA's Slam Dunk contest in 2008, Howard recently hinted that he may be open to staying in Orlando if the organization makes moves to bolster the roster.
But after Monday's game in Toronto, where he recorded a game-high 36 points and 13 rebounds, Howard opted not to comment on any trade talk, although did say it has made using the court as his sanctuary a little tougher.
"It's been tough all year, especially with all the stuff that's been going around. It's been tough for the whole team," said Howard, whose loss to the Lakers in the 2009 finals is the closest he has come to an NBA title.
"We talk about it but like I tell them, at the end of the day we are all family, we are all brothers and no matter what happens we are still brothers."
(Editing by John O'Brien)