Orlando Magic fans don’t want to hear this right now and I’m sure they don’t want to talk about it, but Dwight Howard probably will not sign a contract extension with Orlando. He’s given the Magic seven seasons to build a contending roster around him and the payoff has been one Finals appearance and one Eastern Conference Finals appearance. After this season’s first round exit, it’s evident that the Magic are getting further away from a championship and with $30 million tied up in the terrible contracts of Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu, they lack the salary cap flexibility to substantially improve their roster.
It’s an unusual situation when you label the General Manager of a team that has won at least 52 games for four straight seasons one of the worst at his job in the business, but that’s how I feel about Magic GM Otis Smith. It’s difficult for me to even determine who should be considered the second-best player on that team. Is it Jameer Nelson? Ryan Anderson finished with the second-highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) on the team so maybe it’s him. Either way, Dwight’s had to carry that team on his broad shoulders and it’s a safe bet that he’s tired of doing it without a realistic shot at a championship.
Orlando fans like to point out that Dwight Howard has said he loves Orlando, but he’s also repeatedly stated he wants to win a championship and the latter statement is probably more important than the former. Playing with a legitimate superstar wing like Kobe Bryant must seem awfully appealing to Howard right now. Meanwhile, Magic fans justifiably gnash their teeth at the prospect of losing another Hall of Fame center to the Lakers.
Here’s the thing, though — the Lakers might be the best option out of the handful of trading partners where Howard would agree to sign an extension. While you can call Otis Smith’s competence into question (and I do, repeatedly), everyone has to acknowledge that he’s not afraid to make a bold move. If he’s realistic about his team’s chances of competing next season and convincing Howard to re-sign, this is the offer he should make to Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak before the season: Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
The beauty of this trade from the Magic’s perspective is that they can potentially get two top-five players (when healthy) at their frontcourt positions while also shedding Hedo Turkoglu’s contract and baggage. Why would the Lakers agree to this? They might not, but if there was ever a time that Kupchak might be willing to part with Bynum and Gasol in order to pair Dwight with Kobe Bryant, it has to be now after the Lakers’ embarrassing four-game sweep. Lakers fans are in a blood frenzy to get rid of Gasol after his lackluster 2011 post-season performance, and Bynum has significant recurring health issues and will probably be suspended for at least the first 10 games of the 2011-12 season because of his vicious elbow to J.J. Barea late in Sunday’s season-sender.
I figure if Smith bides his time and waits until the trade deadline, the Lakers will know they have the upper hand and they’ll remember that Gasol and Bynum are both among the best at their positions. That February offer from the Lakers — if it comes at all — probably won’t be much better than Bynum plus a handful of draft picks.
The key figure in this scenario — besides Howard, of course — is Kobe Bryant, who is consumed by a hunger to win two more championships so he can retire with the knowledge that he won one more than Michael Jordan. Whether or not this trade would increase his likelihood of achieving that is open for debate, but I think we can all agree that he doesn’t want to enter next season with the same group of teammates that just rolled over against the Mavericks. Dropping Howard and his post presence, his 20-plus points and 14 or so rebounds into the lineup would have to be very uplifting for Kobe — especially when he considers what this does for the Lakers’ chances of snagging Chris Paul in the 2012 free agent market.
Hedo Turkoglu obviously doesn’t add sex appeal to this offer from the Lakers’ perspective, but while I’m very much not a fan of his game, I actually believe he might not be half-bad as a Laker reserve who can play a distributor’s role while he’s on the floor. Say what you will about his various flaws, he’s proven he can ensure that Kobe, Dwight and Odom will all get their touches.
From a strict perspective of keeping the Magic competitive while helping them down the road to escaping from salary cap hell, this is almost certainly the best return package for Howard that Otis Smith could possibly arrange. If you’d rather get less (or possibly nothing) in return just to try to keep Dwight from becoming a Laker, you’re letting your emotions get in the way of common sense.
Meanwhile, if you’re a Lakers fan who doesn’t think your team needs to give up their two top big men and take on Turkoglu’s contract in order to get Howard, my response to you is this: If you have the chance to pair Dwight with Kobe at the beginning of the season and make your team the prohibitive favorite to secure home court advantage in the Western Conference, you’d better do it.
We don’t know when it will take place or the specific players that will be involved, but all signs point to Howard ending up in Lakers gold and purple one way or another. It’s depressing to many and exciting to some, but it’s the reality of our current NBA marketplace. Remember, a lot of people talked themselves into believing that LeBron James and Chris Bosh would re-sign with their original teams and look how that turned out. The Nuggets and Jazz were more realistic about the situation with their disgruntled superstars and they each got a nice package of players in return because they were proactive.
I understand that this kind of talk angers Magic fans who want to believe that their team won’t hand over the league’s best center to the Lakers for a second time. But a couple of expressions come to mind in response to that: Pride goeth before a fall, and fortune favors the bold. This is certainly a bitter pill to swallow, but the medicine will keep the Magic roster from getting sick like the Raptors and Cavaliers currently are. Let’s see if Smith can prove me wrong about his GM abilities, for the resolution to the Dwight Howard dilemma is by far the biggest test of his career.