What we don’t know is exactly what the Orlando Magic want.
Do they even really want to trade Howard? My guess is, of course not.
There is new management in place and unless it is totally resigned to the fact he’s leaving, it will do anything in its power to keep him. After all, Howard has changed his mind several times, so it’s not crazy to think he might do so again. Also, when it comes right down to it, the Magic right now are the team that can pay him by far the most money. That counts for something.
What’s more, if Howard goes the free-agent route next summer, assuming he is not traded, he would lose all of his “Larry Bird” rights. This further limits not only the amount of money he can make but also the teams with which he can sign a max contract. At this point both the Nets and Lakers, the only places he has indicated he would sign a long-term deal, have no salary-cap room to sign a top free agent next year.
Further complicating things is that Howard recently had back surgery and has not played a single game to prove he is healthy. This cuts both ways because Howard’s value goes way down if he can’t start the year healthy and he is still in a Magic uniform. Orlando may get less in a trade and Howard may get less money in a contract. So waiting has risk on both sides.
So what is Orlando thinking? Hard to say, but I have been in similar situations.
When I first became the general manager of the Denver Nuggets in 2001, one of my first meetings was with Nick Van Exel. Nick was one of the stars of the team and at that time considered one of the best point guards in the league. He let me know in no uncertain terms that he wanted to be traded immediately. At that point, the Nuggets had a bloated payroll and had not performed well in the prior few seasons. I knew if we traded Nick that we were on a rebuilding path. That meant getting rid of all big long-term contracts of underperforming players as quickly as possible and starting over. Luckily we had a supportive owner who was fully behind any rebuilding plan that we came up with.
When I arrived in New Jersey six years later to be general manager of the Nets, we also had a very expensive team that was underperforming. Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson were aging stars with very large contracts. To make matters worse, Kidd not only made it clear to management but also went public that he wanted to be traded. Again, if you traded Jason, you probably were rebuilding.
So let’s look at where Orlando really is and what they are trying to accomplish.
The first thing is that you never want a trade request to go public. (OK, so that one is completely blown out of the water.) A lot of your negotiating leverage goes right out the window as soon as it is publicly known a player is unhappy and wants to be traded. Especially in this type of situation where it is perceived Orlando’s back is against the wall. If the Magic sit and do nothing, they stand a chance of losing Howard with no compensation, the same nightmare scenario that Cleveland faced with LeBron James and Denver with Carmelo Anthony. What Orlando has certainly realized, though, is that it is better to receive nothing in return and get Howard’s contract off your books than to take back anything you don’t want.
Ultimately this is what Orlando wants to accomplish: completely clearing its books of all large contracts that would hinder any rebuilding effort. So for them any Howard trade would also have to include players like Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu, older players with large contracts. That probably also factored into the decision not to match Ryan Anderson’s offer sheet from New Orleans. Anderson is a good young player but it no longer makes sense to tie him up long term.
In addition to clearing your books, any rebuilding team wants to accumulate draft choices and good young players on rookie contracts. Basically what you’re trying to do is gather as many assets and as much financial flexibility as you can get to rebuild as quickly as possible.
Assets can be grouped into one of three categories
1) Salary-cap flexibility 2) Draft choices 3) Good players on rookie deals
The Magic are taking a disciplined approach and it looks as though they will not panic or be forced into making a bad decision. I can tell you from being a part of three rebuilding scenarios that you have to be very disciplined if you’re going to be successful in rebuilding the right way. It is very difficult to go through a losing season, so it becomes tempting to bring in a few players to help you win a few more games. Don’t do it!
Why not? Because in the NBA the one place you never want to be is in the middle of the pack. Be either bad or really good. This is especially true when you are trying to rebuild. Being in the middle of the pack gives you no good draft choices and also means your young players probably won’t get enough playing time to improve quickly.
If Orlando trades Howard, it may as well resign itself to stinking for a year or two. During that time, the Magic need to both draft and develop some young stars of their own. The most recent example of this is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just a few short years ago they were one of the NBA’s worst teams, but they gave two young players an inordinate amount of valuable playing time. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have since become the cornerstones of their franchise for many years to come.
It is a scenario that Orlando GM Rob Hennigan, who spent the last four years in OKC, knows very well. He also knows that there are no shortcuts and it can be a painful process.
But with a little luck in the draft and a disciplined rebuilding approach, the Magic could be really good in just a few short years. Unless, of course, Dwight Howard changes his mind again and stays in Orlando. But that is another story.