Time to trade Howard is now

When the Orlando Magic went out without so much as a whimper during the first round of the NBA playoffs in May, the calls for change in Central Florida rang louder than they ever have before.

The current state of things wasn’t working, and the increasingly impatient fanbase wanted to see something — anything — new: A new coach, a new GM, new players and a new direction. Now, they seem to be getting it all, and all at once, so hopefully they’re ready, because there’s no going back now.

Last week, the Magic made the first of many moves during what is sure to be the most tumultuous offseason in franchise history. They hired Oklahoma City Thunder assistant GM Rob Hennigan to replace Otis Smith as the leader of the their basketball operation.

Hennigan then took no time making his presence felt during his first weekend on the job at the Amway Center, and in the process removed any doubt that may have lingered about the weight of his voice in the team’s decision-making process going forward.

Clearly more than just a puppet for CEO Alex Martins and the DeVos family, which owns the Magic, the 30-year-old first-time GM fired assistant GM Dave Twardzik on Sunday, reportedly replacing him with former Pistons assistant GM Scott Perry.

Hennigan also cut ties with six team scouts, and on Monday, he let go of Adonal Foyle, a former Magic player and the team’s director of player personnel.

Head coach Stan Van Gundy had already been relieved of his duties by the time the team hired Hennigan. As the new front office continues to take shape in Orlando, one can’t help but wonder if All-Star center Dwight Howard will be the next victim of his new boss’ house-cleaning project.

Whether he is or not, one thing is for sure: He should be.

The Magic brought Hennigan in to formulate a boom-or-bust blueprint and restructure the entire franchise from top to bottom, using good drafting, shrewd spending and insightful analysis — all concepts the Magic have never seemed to fully grasp — to build a contender.

That’s what Sam Presti groomed Hennigan to do when the pair worked together in Seattle and Oklahoma City, and I believe he’s fully capable of doing the same thing in Orlando. But Hennigan can’t do it with the uncertainty of Howard’s situation weighing the team down and holding the process back.

To this point, the Magic have been predictably non-committal about Howard’s status with the organization. The team’s brass gave away very little during Hennigan’s introductory news conference last Thursday, choosing to take the answer-without-answering route to any and all questions about the team’s franchise player.

The sense I picked up listening to Hennigan and Martins discuss the big man’s future wasn’t one of overwhelming hope. The Magic seem to realize that things aren’t going to work out the way they hoped when they heaped mounds of undue praise upon Howard for waiving his early termination option just before the trade deadline in March.

Everything about the last four months has been nothing more than build-up to Howard’s departure. Howard’s absence, since back surgery ended his season in late April, has been hard not to notice, and the general sentiment seems to be that his days in Orlando are numbered.

Howard isn’t coming back, but he was never coming back, and Orlando knows it. If Howard wanted to stay in Orlando, he would have already said so, and frankly, it would be a shock to see him wearing a Magic jersey when training camp opens this fall.

So at this point, the Magic should be looking for the best return for their best player so they can allow Hennigan to do what he does best. The decision to cut ties with the biggest star in franchise history may — and perhaps should — come as soon as this week.

The latest report to make the rounds is that the Houston Rockets are hoping to emerge as a contender for Howard’s services. But according to NBA.com’s David Aldridge, there’s “not a chance” the three-time Defensive Player of the Year signs a long-term deal to stay with the Rockets past the 2012-13 season.

On Tuesday, Houston traded forward Chase Budinger to Minnesota for the No. 18 pick in Thursday’s draft, giving the Rockets the No. 14, 16 and 18 picks in the first round.

The thought is that Houston may be able to package some or all of those picks, along with point guard Kyle Lowry and his friendly contract, to move into the top 10, potentially swinging deals with either the Sacramento Kings (No. 5) or the Toronto Raptors (No. 8), or perhaps both. The Rockets, under this plan, would then use those picks, and perhaps the contract of Kevin Martin, to lure the Magic into sending Howard their way.

Should such a move pan out — and there is no guarantee that it or another one like it will — it would be the perfect way to start the rebuilding process in Orlando in earnest. In addition to ridding the Magic of the Howard drama while taking on a wealth of young lottery-caliber talent, any trade would likely include the albatross contract of Hedo Turkoglu, which Orlando is dying to rid itself of.

It could also spell the end of point guard Jameer Nelson’s time in Orlando, as he has until June 29 to decide whether to accept his player option for the upcoming season and likely wouldn’t return without Howard. The same goes for reserve forward Earl Clark, who has indicated that he may test the market, as well.

Additionally, forward Ryan Anderson will be a restricted free agent this summer, and shooting guard J.J. Redick can be waived before July 7 without the Magic being on the hook for the final year of his contract, which is totally non-guaranteed until then.

If Hennigan so chooses, he truly has an opportunity to start with a clean slate and construct a winner in Orlando — and that’s what the Magic brought him in to do. But it’s a slow build, and fans have to give it a chance to work before they start calling for more change.

They have to stop watching the Heat celebrate the first of four, five or six championships and think about where their team might be in four, five, six years, because Hennigan isn’t in Orlando to mash together a championship roster overnight.

He’s there to build one from scratch, and if he’s given enough time and the proper tools, there’s every reason to believe he can do it. But before he can do anything, Howard has to be the first domino to fall.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner.