On What's Best for the Orlando Magic

(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

If Dwight Howard leaves the Orlando Magic, be it by trade or free agency, the team prefers to stay competitive rather than rebuild, Marc Stein of ESPN.com reported Wednesday. The Magic "would not hold out for youth and draft picks as the league-owned New Orleans Hornets were ordered to do in the Chris Paul sweepstakes." Instead, Stein says, citing sources, want any team trading for Howard to send "multiple established veterans who can keep the team competitive." The Atlanta Hawks offered five-time All-Star swingman Joe Johnson and gadget forward Josh Smith for Orlando's future Hall-of-Fame center and "felt like they were making some semblance of progress before the Magic shut down talks," Stein says. That's the sort of package Orlando might be seeking.

Reading Stein's report reminded me of the refrain Otis Smith, Orlando's President of Basketball Operations, has used throughout the Howard trade drama. "Our objective is to win a title and protect this franchise," he said at a press conference in early December. He repeated that sentiment just moments later, saying "We're gonna continue to put the best team on the floor to win an NBA title."

Smith's goal, in other words, is to do what's best for the Orlando Magic, with Howard or without. Keeping Howard is, obviously, what's best. But what's the right course of action if Howard leaves? The mission--do what's best--stays the same. At issue is what precisely "best" means.

Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated writes the Magic plan Stein outlines in his report makes little sense. For the forseeable future, Lowe contends, the path to the NBA Finals in the East runs through the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls. Further, he says, no package of players--be it laden with veterans or one instead filled with youngsters and draft picks--for Howard will put Orlando on the cusp of a championship with its current roster minus Howard, save for one which nets the Magic Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

If you accept the idea that Howard leaving slams shut the Magic's championship window, regardless of what they get in return, then it's clear that adding veterans is precisely the wrong move for them to make. Yes, a team that routinely wins in the mid-forties and contends for a playoff berth might draw a crowd to Amway Center, and attendance is indeed one of the reasons Stein says the Magic prefer to win now.

But Orlando ought not aspire to be the mid-2000s Washington Wizards team, the one which featured a core of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, Antawn Jamison, and DeShawn Stevenson. In the 2004/05 season, the Wizards went 45-37 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. In the three seasons after that, they won 42, 41, and 43 games and were eliminated in the first round each time. They eventually dismantled that team, as Magic fans well know, as Smith acquired Arenas from Washington in an ill-advised move last December.

One may point out the Wizards eventually scored a first-overall draft pick, which they used on stud point guard John Wall. But they only got that pick in the first place because they unloaded the core members of that expensive, veteran-laden, mediocre club. Which is what Orlando would be if they accept a package including, say, a high-scoring swingman in his early 30s and a reasonably competent center.

The best Howard trade Orlando can make--and, as Lowe says, "rading a true top-five-level superstar is a losing proposition either way"--is the one which nets it several draft picks, along with at least two young players who've proven productive in the early stages of their careers. If they can unload the contracts of Chris Duhon and Hedo Turkoglu in the process, even better. Rebuilding won't be pretty--in Wall's first season, Washington lost 59 games, for example--but with the right cap management and the right coach, the team could return to elite status sooner than one might think.

The bottom line? If and when Smith decides to trade Howard, he needs to reach for the dynamite, not the duct tape.

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