Howard discovers happiest place on earth

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Orlando Magic.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Money doesn't buy happiness in the NBA.

Say it again, so that the agents in the back hear it clearly. Money, even $20 million a year, doesn't buy happiness.

Laugh all you want. But before you dismiss it completely, take a trip down to Orlando and see the smile on Juwan Howard's face.

This season, Howard took a $15 million-a-year pay cut to play for the Magic.

And he's never been happier.

"A breath of fresh air," Howard says with a smile.

You can make the argument that Howard has been, simultaneously over the past seven seasons, the most overrated and most underrated player in the NBA.

Despite his genial manner and rock solid numbers, he's been vilified for signing a $100 million-plus contract with Washington in 1996. Within two years of signing the deal, the contract became a millstone around his neck that he was unable to shake. While almost everyone prefers to be overpaid instead of underpaid, the cost of Howard's big payday has taken a huge toll on him personally and on the teams he played for.

Bust. Untradeable. Flop. He's heard it all. You can still see the scars of pain and betrayal on Howard's face.

"Honestly, of course I was hurt," Howard said. "That overshadowed my game. No one was talking about what I do on the court or how I helped the teams I played for. No one talked about how I've been one of the most consistent players in the NBA.

"What took away from all of that? The contract. At that time, that's what they (the Wizards) felt my market value was worth and of course, I was going to sign it. I'm not going to turn away from that kind of money. I felt I deserved it."

Deserved it? The jury is still out on that one. Howard has been remarkably consistent in his career, posting averages of 17.9 points and 7.5 rebounds a game over his nine-year career.

But while he's always achieved a certain measure of personal success, team success, the more lasting measure of a player's career, still eludes him. He's played in just two playoffs series in his career.

Howard admits that the pressure of losing and the criticism of his contract at times affected his performance on the court.

"I don't have to go out and try to please people anymore," Howard said. "I think that was my biggest problem when I was younger. I tried to go out there and prove things so much. As I've gotten older, I've learned that once you start doing that, it takes away from your game. It takes away from you being happy and just enjoying the game. I was thinking too much."

Still, despite the losses and negativity, Howard contends that he never lost his passion for the game.

"I've always enjoyed the game," he said. "I just wanted to play basketball. I didn't know coming into the NBA that everything revolves around money and politics and so on. I was young and naïve. I just wanted to play ... Now that microscope is off me, I think people are going to finally notice my game. But I'm like 'Y'all, I've been playing this game for 10 years now.' "

Coach Doc Rivers is sympathetic to his plight.

"It's been tough," Rivers said. "He was put in a $20 million dollar position. That doesn't mean he was a $20 million dollar player. I don't know how many of those there really are in this league. But don't fault Juwan for taking the money. He should take it. By the way, if there's anyone out there that wants to pay me $20 million dollars, I'll take it, too. You can boo me, too, but the $20 million will help me get over it."

Both Rivers and general manager John Gabriel recognized over the summer that Howard may be the perfect fit for the Magic. Howard was wounded and willing to work cheap. He no longer wanted his name and contract mentioned in the same sentence. The Magic didn't have much to spend and got a bargain when Howard agreed to play for roughly $5 million a season.

Through all of the frustration, Howard has emerged as a humble man yet one who's hungry for a title. His work with the younger players in Denver last season has forced some to rewrite the book on Juwan. Now widely admired by his peers, coaches and GMs around the league, Howard no longer has to fight the battle of unrealistic expectations.

"This is a chance for him to get out and play now and the contract stuff is in the past," Rivers said. "This is a great opportunity for people to get out and judge Juwan Howard as a player now and not judge him on contract numbers ... I think this is the best position he's ever been in as a player."

Howard feels the same way. But to really to erase the past and get the fans and media focusing on what's important to him, he has to win.

He believes that Orlando is the place. Howard turned down offers from the Pistons, Bulls and Timberwolves to play for Doc Rivers this season.

"The deciding factor was to play for a team that has a chance of winning," Howard said. "I wanted to find a team that was one player away from helping them get over the hump. It was a good fit."

Is Howard that player? The Magic are pleased that Howard decided to play for them, but they aren't going that far just yet.

"We needed a second scorer," Rivers said. "We needed one bad. People just loaded up on (Tracy McGrady) in the playoffs. Having that second option will help us."

But is he the missing piece?

"He's one of the pieces," Rivers said. "I think we have some pieces we still have to find. We're a more talented team because Juwan's here."

The other piece Rivers is talking about is second-year forward Drew Gooden. Gooden was, at times, sensational in the playoffs last season, causing some in the league to wonder why the Magic spent all of their money this summer on a guy who plays the same position.

"How are we going to play them together?" Rivers asks before the question is even posed to him. "We don't really know. I know we're going to play them on the floor at five, four even three at times. We like him because he's versatile, but honestly it's a work in progress."

Gabriel says that in the East, position doesn't really matter. He expects Gooden and Howard to play together on the front line. Neither player is really a center, but Gabriel argues you don't really need one in the East.

"Sooner or later as you work in this conference, you learn that it's a conference of non-positions or lack of bigs," Gabriel said. "The reality of it is, every year someone wants to talk about a true position player -- all we look for is basketball players."

The Magic expect Howard to be more than a rebounder and scorer. They also want him to be a mentor to Gooden the next few years.

"He's a good veteran anchor for what has turned out to be the youngest team fielded by us in 15 years," Gabriel said. "We felt like we needed that."

So far, Howard is comfortable with the fit.

"If I felt it was going to be a problem, I wouldn't be here," Howard said. "I wanted to play with a young, talented player with upside. I wanted to help him. So far it's been great."

But nothing is quite as sweet as those considerably smaller paychecks he gets in the mail every two weeks. For the first time in his career, Juwan Howard is a bargain.

"Yeah, I like those words," Howard said. "You can't put a value on winning and respect. I'm just grateful I've been given a second chance to earn a little of both."

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com's ESPN Insider.