AP Photo/John Raoux
Well, here we are. The Magic are winning, and there is no end in sight to the Dwight Howard saga. In some ways, this was the least likely scenario, as it sure seemed as if Orlando’s roster and Dwight’s disposition would make this season like getting a root canal. Such was my prediction, anyway. And yet, the Magic have continued — in some ways, rediscovered — their proficiency as a regular season team, and that is going to raise the question.
Should they keep Dwight no matter what this season?
Let me say, first off, that I’m not wondering whether Dwight Howard should choose to stay. I’m wondering whether it makes any kind of decent sense to hold on to Dwight and use the team’s current success as their best argument for keeping him. I know it’s the route a lot of fans would like to see the team go, but so far, the Magic as constructed with Dwight Howard on the team do not seem to have a compelling enough argument to risk trying this approach.
Going forward, the team’s approach with Dwight is all about risk management. Any of the popular choices — trading Howard for young players and picks, trading Howard for Andrew Bynum, holding on to him through the season — carry some risk and some reward. And of those three options, I think holding onto Howard is still the highest risk/lowest reward proposition.
With a trade for young players, the risk of a terrible team, which is high, is mitigated by the almost certain reward of stocking Orlando’s talent pool with players who will learn the game from Stan Van Gundy. With a player like Bynum, the medium risk of a bad team is offset by the reward of having gotten something back for your franchise-sized void while having the Lakers absorb a bad contract (Turkoglu). In the final scenario, the unknowable risk of Dwight’s leaving is offset, or not, by the potential reward of the team staying at its present level. Of course, the team’s present level, while enjoyable to watch on a nightly basis, is hardly worth risking having nothing to show for Howard’s departure.
Look, I’ve enjoyed the start of this season as least as much as anyone. There are stretches when it looks like the Magic are succeeding inevitably, as a sheer function of opposing defenders being unable to be in two places at once. But I think we’ve seen that this is not a contending team. There’s too little athleticism aside from Dwight, and too little defensive ability on the wings.
Take, for instance, the game against the Knicks. The Magic had nobody they could really bother Carmelo Anthony with; fortunately, he shot his team out of the game, but every trip down the court was a question of whether Carmelo had the discipline to get a decent shot against a lesser defender. He didn’t, but it had a lot more to do with him than it did with the Magic.
You could point to similar instances all season long where the Magic have been succeeding despite fairly noticeable deficiencies. Jameer Nelson has mostly been getting outplayed, Jason Richardson has looked out of sync, and so on. This team is good enough to beat the teams it should and, on a hot night, most of the league. It is not built well enough to respond to the adjustments of a high-quality opponent or to beat teams with its weaker areas.
But wait, you say, if the team locks in Dwight, there will be upside beyond the current roster. And my response is: not really. The team is simply too financially locked into its current core. Other than Dwight, the only players who could conceivably come off the books without a trade are Redick (likely back on a team option with decent value), Jameer (who will certainly exercise his $8.6m player option), Larry Hughes and Von Wafer.
So, basically, you’re looking at this year’s team minus Larry Hughes and maybe minus Von Wafer. That’s not fixing the problem, or freeing up enough money to spend. Further, even when the team does free up money to spend, it’s still Otis Smith spending the money of an owner who has called for the team to bring in more “proven veterans.” Listen, I don’t know about y’all, but I do not relish the prospect of being the Wizards South.
As far as the team’s other options are concerned, they seem more palatable to me. Obviously, I have been pretty vocal about wanting the team to acquire young pieces. I’m not wild about the trade for Bynum, but at least you could convince the Lakers to take a bad contract and maybe involve a third team for draft picks.
Of course, this is all assuming you watch and root for basketball teams the same way I do. I tend to track organizations and large issues more than I care about whether the Magic slip up and lose to the Bobcats on a mid-season Tuesday; in my view, a team needs to either be executing a plan or acquiring financial flexibility. But maybe you don’t think that way, and maybe right now is enough for you. The jury is still out, though, on whether right now will be enough for Dwight Howard.
Danny Nowell is a contributing writer for Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.