Orlando should hold on to Howard ... for now
When you trade a superstar like Howard, you are in total rebuilding mode. You go from contender to a lottery team, so if and when the Magic make a deal, they need to get a combination of very young players on good contracts, draft choices and cap flexibility.
I think if you are looking at Howard, you have to say he wants to be traded to a major market first and foremost and someplace where the team can really utilize and exploit his talents and afford to keep him. Howard has said that Brooklyn is his first choice for a variety of reasons. I think the Nets are not out of the running long term, but certainly would be out of the running until the trade deadline (Jan. 15). But they've made moves in signing Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries to two contracts that would allow them to trade for Howard at that time.
Right now in the short term, the Lakers seem best equipped if Orlando, or some other team — Cleveland — likes Andrew Bynum.
Which brings us to the current rumors that are out there regarding the Lakers. They obviously have great interest in Howard and have shown a reported willingness to trade for him without him re-signing long term, which is a big gamble — but a calculated one. They obviously would have to trade Bynum as part of that deal and he wouldn't necessarily go to Orlando, with Cleveland entering the picture according to reports. That third team is necessary to give Orlando the additional cap space and future picks or the young players that it would need in any Howard deal.
Of course, if Los Angeles can get a healthy Howard, the Lakers would make themselves a contender as long as Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are still healthy and Howard is with them. But to give up major assets in any trade and gamble on Howard's health and signing him long term is a risk.
Look at the Houston Rockets. They're all in in chasing Howard and they've given up multiple good players for cap space to take back some of the big contracts Orlando has to unload in the trade and have the draft choices to kick start Orlando's rebuilding efforts. But Howard has said he's not going to re-sign with Houston, so why attempt a trade?
The Atlanta Hawks are also in a state of flux at this point as they dumped some big contracts and made it clear they are going to try to start over. I'm sure they're working feverishly behind the scenes to try and make a Howard deal come to fruition. They've got some good pieces, but are they willing to basically tear down their whole team to get him?
When you are trading for Howard, or any superstar for that matter, you don't trade for them unless you have pieces around him where you think you can win and get him to re-sign with you. You have to give up multiple assets to acquire that superstar, but you have to make sure you have enough remaining so you can still be competitive at the highest level.
I think it's tricky for any of these teams to do this.
And though a return to Orlando may not be ideal, Howard is a very easy player to love. He plays so hard, and except for his back injury, he has always shown up to play. After his first 30-point, 20-rebound game, even the most ardent fan is going to cheer for the superstar again.
There is no question that this episode hurts his brand, but fans will re-embrace him ... wherever he is.