Dwight Howard finally got his wish. He’s no longer a member of the Orlando Magic.
And while Orlando never did cave in to the superstar center’s original demand — a trade to Brooklyn to play alongside Deron Williams with the Nets — Howard may find himself in a more favorable situation with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers when the dust finally settles following his hellish divorce from the Magic.
The particulars of the massive four-team deal, approved by the league on Friday, look like this (try and follow me):
Howard will join the Lakers, along with Magic teammates Chris Duhon and Earl Clark. Lakers center Andrew Bynum goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, along with Magic swingman Jason Richardson. The Denver Nuggets get Sixers forward Andre Iguodala.
And in return for all this moving and shaking, Orlando receives Nuggets forward Al Harrington and shooting guard Arron Afflalo, Sixers rookie guard Moe Harkless and big man Nikola Vucevic, Lakers big man Josh McRoberts and small forward Christian Eyenga, plus three lottery-protected first-round picks and two second-round picks.
Got all that? Good.
The big winners in this blockbuster deal are unquestionably Howard and the Lakers.
Howard, whose uncooperative, aching back likely started feeling better sometime Thursday night, is now 20 percent of a deadly starting five that includes Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol — who, stunningly, was not moved in the monstrous deal — and Metta World Peace.
Howard has never been paired with a point guard in the same stratosphere as Nash, a big man as good as Gasol or a fellow superstar like Bryant, who should be reinvigorated by the newfound plausibility of another title. But now Howard will have all three at his disposal — and to think, that wasn’t even his first choice.
Of course, the six-time All-Star’s posh new predicament did come at a cost — emotionally, anyway. Howard’s reputation took a staggering blow as he bullied his way out of Orlando, following in the footsteps of his on-again, off-again enemy Shaquille O’Neal, who left Orlando for LA as a free agent in 1996.
The once-affable goofball Howard essentially backed his doting former team into a corner and robbed them of all their leverage, forcing the Magic to send him where he wanted to go, getting a coach fired, tearing apart a locker room and giving the proverbial middle finger to a fan base along the way.
Though he’s remained silent throughout the ordeal, Howard is certainly self-aware enough to realize how hated he now is by everyone not wearing Lakers purple and gold, and for most of those people (particularly Magic fans) their contempt comes with good reason.
That said, he’s also witnessed LeBron James rehabilitate his image over the last two seasons after snatching the throne as basketball’s biggest villain, and he knows that winning a championship — something he and the Lakers now seem tailor-made to do — sure makes that undertaking much more manageable.
And don’t kid yourself, these Lakers are absolutely a championship-caliber team with Howard on board.
The move to acquire the league’s best big man, Howard, stands as the capstone on an astounding renovation in Los Angeles that will put the 33-year-old Bryant in a much better position to tie Michael Jordan with a sixth championship ring than he was in May, when the Lakers got bounced from the playoffs by the plucky Oklahoma City Thunder.
Since the start of free agency, LA has turned the Lamar Odom trade exception and a bundle of putrid draft picks into the two-time MVP point guard Nash. They’ve bolstered the bench by signing 14-year veteran Antawn Jamison to a minimum deal. And they’ve basically swapped the promising but inconsistent Bynum for the steady and imposing man-child Howard.
It’s on par with LA’s fleecing of the Memphis Grizzlies to acquire Gasol in 2008, and it’s a testament to just how good general manager Mitch Kupchak is at building a winner. His Lakers, which were on the border of becoming an also-ran after this latest playoff flop, are now the class of the West, and maybe the class of the league, period.
But they’re also not the only winners in this exchange. Philadelphia and Denver also made out like bandits, and probably still can’t believe that they weaseled their way into the deal.
The Sixers managed to emerge with the second-best player in the trade, Bynum, while the Nuggets acquired the third in the Olympian Iguodala. And for the Nuggets, it didn’t even cost them the $13 million trade exception they still have tucked in their back pocket. Both these 2012 playoff teams have ostensibly made themselves better just by virtue of being facilitators.
On the other hand, it’s a curious deal for Orlando — the team that, you’ll recall, initiated all of this noise at Howard’s behest — to finally settle on, and in truth there’s not a whole lot of good news to be derived from the end result.
Simply put: the Magic got swindled.
I’d have taken Bynum for Howard straight up 100 times over the deal the Magic got. I’d have rather paid $82 million for a Brook Lopez-Kris Humphries frontcourt — another one-time Magic option — than this. I may have even just let Howard walk for nothing instead of volunteering for this robbery.
The disheartening but widely understood theory heading into this doomsday scenario always seemed to be that Orlando would lose Howard, bottom out this year and then start to rebuild in 2013, using the lottery picks, cap space and young talent presumably acquired in the Howard deal to remold their roster.
But in flipping Howard for Harrington, Afflalo, Harkless, Vucevic and a collection of ho-hum picks, the Magic have essentially done none of the above, handcuffing themselves from a flexibility standpoint and damning themselves to basketball purgatory for the foreseeable future.
As part of the Howard swap, Orlando rid itself of the hefty contracts of Richardson (three years, $18.6 million), and Duhon (two years, $6.75 million), but they were unable to unload Hedo Turkoglu (two years, $24 million) or Glen Davis (three years, $19.4 million) in the process.
Additionally, Orlando took on the costly deals of Harrington (three years, $21.5 million) and Afflalo (four years, $31.2 million), leaving them no closer to having significant cap space than they were to begin with, even if they cut ties with Harrington, whose final two years are only partially guaranteed.
The picks the Magic got aren’t helping, either, since all three draft selections — one from each winning bidder in the Howard deal — are lottery-protected. This means Orlando is looking at a trio of mid-first rounders at best, and anyone who remembers the Steven Hunter/Jeryl Sasser/Reece Gaines era of Magic draft history knows just how well those types of choices usually pan out.
What Orlando really needed was for a team like Cleveland or Toronto or Charlotte to get involved and somehow offer up a guaranteed lottery pick — like the one the Raptors gave to Houston for Kyle Lowry — so that the Magic could at least walk away with some semblance of hope that they can start the rebuilding process soon.
Instead, the deal left Orlando living out its worst-case scenario: broke, awful and hoping to get luckier in the draft than it did in this trade. The Magic are stuck in neutral until the next Shaq or Dwight comes along to save them, and history says those players — like relevant Orlando rosters — are few and far between.