Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
The Orlando Magic are going to trade Dwight Howard sometime between now and the start of training camp in September. That much is clear.
Where Otis Smith’s regime made a habit of making franchise-altering decisions based on what they thought would please their mercurial superstar, new general manager Rob Hennigan seems to want no part of the charade. Dwight is effectively gone, and everybody knows it. The deal that Hennigan takes to move him will tell us a lot about his vision for the franchise, and Howard’s two most high-profile suitors embody the dichotomy between the win-now approach and that of tearing the entire thing up and starting over.
There’s always the outside chance that a team like the Rockets or Hawks will swoop in with an offer, but for all intents and purposes, it’s pretty safe to assume that Howard will tip off the 2012-13 NBA season either as a Brooklyn Net or a Los Angeles Laker. It’s common knowledge that he prefers the former destination.
However, looking at the packages the two teams can offer, it’s tough to argue that it’s not in the best interests of the Magic organization for Howard to wear purple and gold. Orlando won’t reap the rewards of this move right away, and fans will likely be in for two seasons of middling to outright bad basketball. But if Hennigan wants to wash his hands of Howard and Smith entirely, it’s the only way to go.
Here’s what the ideal trade would look like, fundamentally: Howard would go to the Lakers, along with Jason Richardson and Glen Davis, who are owed a combined $38 million over the next three seasons. In addition to receiving Andrew Bynum, who has long been Orlando’s top target in any Howard deal, the Magic would take back the contracts of Steve Blake and Metta World Peace, which expire a year earlier than those of Richardson and Big Baby.
By itself, this may not seem that significant. But in addition to the combined $11.7 million Blake and World Peace are owed in the final year of their contracts, here’s what else comes off Orlando’s books in the summer of 2014: Hedo Turkoglu ($12 million if they keep him, $6 million if he is waived), Chris Duhon ($3.5 million), and Quentin Richardson ($2.8 million). That’s nearly $30 million in expiring money they can either trade for picks and younger players or keep to position themselves as major players during free agency in 2014.
The Lakers have been hesitant to put Bynum on the table without a commitment from Howard to stick around long-term, which was a perfectly understandable position to take before they stunned the entire NBA on Wednesday by swinging a sign-and-trade deal for Steve Nash.
They have to like their chances of convincing Howard not to walk away from Nash, Kobe, Pau Gasol, the Los Angeles market and all of the opportunities it offers, the extra year and $24 million or so they could pay him, and the chance to play for a perennial contender. Making Bynum available is worth that gamble.
Bynum is not a perfect centerpiece for the Magic. He’s had knee issues, and the concerns about his maturity and work ethic are not unfounded. But while he’s not on Howard’s level as a center, he’s the closest thing the league has. And taking him out of the shadow of Kobe and Gasol and making him the focal point of the franchise, not to mention the Bird rights Orlando would hold over him, are factors one would think would swing him to the “engaged” side of the pendulum.
The combination of Bynum and cap relief is certainly preferable to the package the Nets have to offer. One solid young prospect (MarShon Brooks) and two sure-to-be-overpaid sign-and-trade pieces (Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries) along with a few mid-20s draft picks is not the way to rebuild. It strikes me, in fact, as precisely the type of haul Otis Smith would have fallen over himself to accept. It would keep the Magic in the first- or second-round exit purgatory they’ve been in the last two seasons, with no end in sight to the bad contracts they would be forced to take on to make Howard’s salary work for the capped-out Nets.
With the Lakers’ trade, there is a clear end-point to an era best left dead and buried.