We all knew the Orlando Magic would never receive a favorable return for Dwight Howard.
OK, maybe we didn’t know for certain — but that sure seemed to be the chatter among opposing NBA front-office types.
The longer the Magic held onto Howard, it was widely assumed, the less talent they would obtain. And not just because the Magic’s new general manager is barely older than the water boy.
Instead, 30-year-old Rob Hennigan took over the basketball side of the franchise at the most inopportune time. There was no winning when it came to Howard; only degrees of losing.
Howard wanted out, and if Hennigan didn’t trade him, Howard was destined to become the 2013 version of LeBron James, leaving the Magic on his own via free agency after the season. It’s what James did to Cleveland three years ago — and the Cavaliers promptly followed his abrupt departure by losing an American pro sports record 26 straight games.
So the Magic faced what you call a big-league predicament, the type that rears its despicable dome too often in this age of dissatisfaction and superstars seemingly closing their eyes and throwing darts to pick their new favorite city.
And what did the Magic receive in the four-team trade that sent Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers? How about a mishmash of spare parts, a couple of hefty contracts and a bunch of meaningless draft picks that everyone else in the deal conceded with a smirk.
Hennigan and those in similar situations have come up with a buzzword for this type of junk, attempting to excuse their lousy situation by overselling the idea that they’ve cornered the market on “assets.”
Of course, the product on the floor stinks — but hey, not everyone can be the Boston Celtics of the 1960s. Somebody’s gotta be bad, right?
But being bad is one thing. Utter deterioration is quite another.
The Magic aren’t alone in this area. When it comes to going from competitiveness to everyday castaway, they have some company.
Let’s take a team-by-team look:
The Magic seem to be the logical starting point, since no one is expected to decline as quickly and as noticeably.
Forget future draft picks. They can’t suit up and dunk. Not yet, anyway. As for this year, the Magic will be little more than a conglomeration of Average Joes in fancy sneakers and baggy shorts.
Actual bodies received for Howard (and Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon and Earl Clark): Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and rookie Moe Harkless.
In musical terms, that would be like replacing Michael Jackson on center stage with a bunch of guys who bang on garbage cans and burp. In basketball terms, it means the Magic could wind up being the worst team in the league.
The Bulls owned the best record in the Eastern Conference in each of the past two seasons. They have a trip to the conference finals and first-round playoff exit, respectively, to show for it.
Still, they were viewed as a team on the rise, a team in the truest sense with perhaps the game’s best point guard. And they deserve clemency since the reason they’ll be worse is no fault of their own.
Well, not entirely.
After all, coach Tom Thibodeau could’ve taken a slight gamble and removed Derrick Rose from the first playoff game against Philadelphia, with the Bulls clearly in control with time winding down. (A theory that has likely aged Thibodeau a good 17 years this offseason.)
But Rose blew out his knee and isn’t expected to return until January or later. Without him, the Bulls are a team that will get after it defensively and dive for loose balls. Just like the Milwaukee Bucks, and they’re a .500 team too.
New GM Danny Ferry arrived with grand plans to free up salary-cap space and start anew. For that, he deserves an A-plus and probably some credits toward his master’s degree.
Gone are borderline All-Star Joe Johnson and starting small forward Marvin Williams. In their place are Lou Williams, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow, rookie John Jenkins and a few others — meaning the Hawks traded being stuck in basketball purgatory for the right to ride the turbulent waves of letting it fly from the perimeter.
Next year, they’ll have money to spare. This year, it’s Josh Smith, Al Horford and an assortment of streak shooters.
Read: Approaching purgatory status in 2012-13 would seem like heaven.
Lately, we’ve been pulling out the same predictions: Tim Duncan and Manu Ginboli are too old, and Ginobili and Tony Parker are too reckless and prone to injury.
But lately, the Spurs have put on a near-clinic during the regular season anyway. Then they collapse in the playoffs against a younger, more athletic team.
As former Cavs guard Anthony Parker said last season, father time is undefeated. Anthony Parker has since retired.
Duncan, Ginobili or Tony Parker aren’t likely to vacate at season’s end, but they aren’t going to suddenly lead the Spurs to their title-winning ways of earlier this decade.
A more realistic scenario is for the Spurs to take several steps back, starting now. But if we know the Spurs, at least they’ll go down honorably.
Yes, Steve Nash turns 39 in February. Yes, Grant Hill turns 40 before the season starts. Yes, both are gone.
In other words, the Suns went from being ancient to ripe, losing star power and productivity in the process. And they weren’t really that much of a threat to begin with.