Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Tonight, Dwight Howard returns to the house he built, Amway Center, for a second time as an opposing player.
In his first go-around as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard put up a dominant 39-point, 16-rebound, three-block performance against the Orlando Magic while being showered by boos all night long. It was Howard’s best game in his lone season with the Lakers. During the offseason, Howard walked away from L.A. after a nightmare season and signed with the Houston Rockets as an unrestricted free agent.
Even though he’s now with the Rockets, the reception Howard will receive from Magic fans likely won’t change. He’ll still get booed, though he may get peppered with a few cheers when the Magic honor him with a video tribute during a timeout in the first quarter.
What has changed is the perception surrounding the Howard mega-deal. When the Magic made the trade in August 2012, they were widely criticized for not receiving enough assets (namely a star) in return. Then Howard left the Lakers, Andre Iguodala left the Denver Nuggets, Andrew Bynum left the Philadelphia Sixers (after not playing a single game due to injuries), and the Magic won the trade by default.
Even though it’s been over a year and a half since Howard was dealt, the impact of the four-team blockbuster trade is still reverberating in Orlando. In fact, the Magic’s haul is looking better with each passing day.
Arron Afflalo is one of the biggest reasons why the narrative of the Howard trade is currently being rewritten.
Originally seen as the centerpiece of the deal, given that he was the best player being acquired at the time, Afflalo struggled in his first year in Orlando. He was unprepared for the rigors of being the primary scoring option for the Magic after being a complementary 3-and-D player in Denver and his numbers suffered because of it. His efficiency in particular nosedived, in large part because his usually reliable 3-point shot escaped him last season (30.0 percent).
But during the offseason, Afflalo worked hard to expand his game so that he could handle the increased workload. As a result, he’s having the best season of his career in 2013-14. He’s averaging 19.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, and has a .586 True Shooting percentage. Afflalo has rediscovered his 3-point stroke (43.8 percent) along the way and not coincidentally, he’s returned to his previous levels of efficiency when he played for the Nuggets.
Afflalo has been so good that he was warranting All-Star considerations midway through the season, even though he was playing on a bad team, before he was ultimately passed over. Precisely because he was playing on a bad team.
Instead of being a veteran that was likely going to get traded, the 28-year-old Afflalo has played himself into conceivably being the Magic’s starting two-guard of the future. Especially considering that his contract ($7.5 million in 2013-14 and 2014-15, with a player option in 2015-16) is so palatable.
The player that ended up overshadowing Afflalo last season was Nikola Vucevic, who arrived from the Sixers as an average big man and transformed himself into a double-double machine overnight. No one saw that coming, certainly not the brass in Philadelphia.
This season, Vucevic has been able to build upon his breakout year in 2012-13 and continue to show that he has the potential to be one of the premier bigs in the NBA. It’s no surprise that his incredible rebounding prowess is valuable to the team. The Magic pull down 50.3 percent of available rebounds while Vucevic is on the floor, per NBA.com. When he’s off the floor, that number drops down to 47.3 percent.
Whether or not Vucevic fully blossoms into an All-Star caliber player like Afflalo is completely dependent on his ability to improve as a defender, though he’s making strides.
He’s gotten better at defending post-ups this season. Opponents shoot just 35.7 percent (30-for-84) against him, per Synergy. That’s a dramatic difference from last season, when opponents shot 46.9 percent (115-for-245). Plus, this season the Magic are instructing Vucevic to drop down towards the paint in containing pick-and-rolls, as opposed to having him hedge and recover as he did last season. That’s helped deal with his lack of foot speed.
Coming alongside Vucevic from Philly was Maurice Harkless, who was originally drafted by the Sixers but then traded to Orlando in the Howard bonanza. Out of all the players that the Magic acquired, Harkless was the biggest unknown. He spent one season at St. John’s and was seen by many draft experts as a raw, but athletic wing player.
At first, Harkless didn’t get a lot of playing time as a rookie. But eventually head coach Jacque Vaughn inserted him into the starting lineup at the small forward position, and that’s when Harkless began to show the type of impact player he could become in the league.
Harkless struggled enormously with his jump shot, but he compensated by showing that he could be quite an effective slasher. He showed an amazing ability to find crevices of space along the baseline near the basket for layups or dunks. It’s rare to see a teenager at 19 years old move so well without the ball, yet that was a skill that jumped out as Harkless progressed in his rookie year.
It also eventually became clear that, given his length and athleticism, Harkless could really ply his trade as a wing defender. There was one game last season against the Knicks when Harkless blocked Carmelo Anthony’s shot four times, proving that he could successfully defend the elite scorers in the NBA. The question was always whether or not he could develop a jump shot to be able to stay on the court and not jeopardize the Magic’s spacing offensively.
Fortunately for the Magic, that’s precisely what’s happened this season. During the offseason, Harkless reconstructed his jump shot and the improvements have translated onto the court. His 3-point percentage jumped from 27.4 percent last season to 37.9 percent this season.
Although Harkless still struggles from the free throw line (he’s shooting 57.7 percent for his career), he’s quickly become an above-average 3-point shooter who is also fast enough to stay with dangerous threats on the perimeter, proving that he could become a potential 3-and-D player for the Magic.
Perhaps the most surprising development from the Howard trade is that Orlando is in line to receive a second lottery pick from either the Nuggets or Knicks (it’s looking more and more likely that it’ll be the Nuggets, unless they magically leapfrog the Knicks in the lottery) in a loaded 2014 draft.
Entering the season, the Nuggets and Knicks were projected to be playoff teams in their respective conferences. But the Knicks have endured a dreadful regular season in which everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the franchise. Meanwhile, the Nuggets have struggled under new head coach Brian Shaw. Injuries have riddled both teams, and the Knicks stand at 21-40 with the Nuggets at 25-34.
Who saw that coming?
The effects of the Howard trade have already transformed the Magic. Vucevic, Harkless, and possibly Afflalo are seen as part of Orlando’s core. The Magic’s second lottery pick should provide another young piece for GM Rob Hennigan to add to a budding roster. But that’s not all. Orlando still has two more first round picks coming in the future (a 2016 first round pick from the Sixers and 2017 first round pick from the Lakers).
Everyone always said that Howard’s departure would have a huge impact in Orlando. But no one imagined that the direct effect would be so positive. What many considered a disastrous deal at the time has turned into the saving grace of the Magic franchise while also extricating them from the black cloud Howard had wrought over his final two seasons.