In the NBA, rare is the trade wherein a team gives up a superstar player and comes away better off in the long term. But that's exactly what happened with the Orlando Magic in August when they shipped Dwight Howard, at his request, to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a four-team, 12-player trade. Howard's return to Orlando on Tuesday serves as a great opportunity to discuss the trade, from which both he and the Magic benefitted.
Given the so-called Dwightmare which clouded the months before the trade, it's easy to lose sight of how well it's worked for Orlando. Howard and the Magic looked foolish as Howard issued a trade request, rescinded it, and then impulsively waived his right to free agency at roughly the same time Orlando had reportedly agreed to trade him to the New Jersey Nets. The team called a press conference to announce Howard's decision, which he made against the advice of his agent.
But then Howard had a change of heart and ultimately decided to ask for another trade, a decision which, some folks have suggested, he made based on the team's attitude toward him after he suffered a season-ending back injury.
The best player Orlando received when it finally dealt Howard was Arron Afflalo, a solid but unspectacular veteran swingman signed to a long-term deal. Maurice Harkless and Nikola Vučević were the two young prospects who came the Magic's way, and neither figured to be an immediate contributor. Further, the Magic didn't unload the long-term salaries of Glen Davis or Hedo Türkoğlu in the deal. Analysts and fans ridiculed the Magic and rookie general manager Rob Hennigan for their huge blunder.
But the Magic are doing just fine after the trade, when one considers their goals. They succeeded in bottoming out, owning the league's second-worst record, but they've also gotten great production from Vučević and Harkless, both of whom figure to be long-term starters for Orlando. Hennigan and his front-office staff look brilliant for identifying their talent.
Howard may not look like a winner in the trade just yet, but in the long term, moving on from Orlando was in his best interests. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year wanted to join a franchise with a championship pedigree and the ability to compete for a title right away, and he accomplished both goals; that L.A. has underachieved in 2012/13 was unforeseen.
Further, Howard seems to have grown, as a man, from his Orlando days. In an interview with USA Today, Howard explained that he understands how poorly he handled the Magic situation. Maybe Howard wasn't thinking of personal growth as a goal when he first landed in L.A., but the deal had that effect on him. I believe he is a better man after learning from his mistakes with Orlando.
On a professional level, Howard has also set himself up to be the face of the Lakers' future. While some folks have speculated that L.A. might let him sign elsewhere as a free agent, or could look to sign-and-trade him, the truth is that the Lakers don't really have those options: they're deep in the league's luxury tax with an aging core of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace. Young combo forward Earl Clark has likely priced himself out of L.A.'s range when he hits free agency, leaving Howard as the Lakers' only great player younger than 32. If the Lakers are to remain competitive as Bryant advances in age--and the future Hall-of-Famer has said he'll retire rather than age gracelessly--then they'll have to build around Howard for the future.
The trade to L.A., in other words, afforded Howard the opportunity to become a cornerstone player, long-term, for one of sports' most storied franchises in one of the world's most vibrant cities. From that standpoint, it's hard to imagine him landing in a better situation than the one in Los Angeles. A trade to the Nets, which team he may have preferred initially and who moved to Brooklyn for 2012/13, would have given him a similarly sized stage, but that franchise lacks the Lakers' gravitas; most franchises do.
It's tough to say whether the Lakers themselves benefitted from August's trade at all, but Howard and the Magic pretty clearly came away better off. There's certainly bitterness between Orlando's fans and Howard, and between Howard and Orlando management, for the way the situation played out. But it's important to note that the situation could have turned out much worse than it did.