While rumors linking Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets have become a cottage industry of their own, none of the proposed deals make much sense for the Orlando Magic. In dealing Howard, Orlando should look for a package similar to the one David Stern got the New Orleans Hornets for Chris Paul: a star-caliber talent, a high draft pick and no long-term salary obligations.
For a small-market franchise rebuilding from the loss of a Hall of Fame player, the worst possible outcome is a team capable of contending for a No. 8 seed. The only way to replace a talent like Howard is at the top of the NBA draft, which is why Orlando should focus on bottoming out after Howard’s departure.
Lottery picks should be an essential part of any trade package the Magic receive. The Cleveland Cavaliers turned their franchise around when they picked up the Los Angeles Clippers' unprotected first-round pick in 2011, which turned into No. 1 overall selection Kyrie Irving. With the Clippers' pick, as well as their own (No. 4 overall selection Tristan Thompson), the Cavaliers accelerated their post-LeBron James rebuilding process.
The unprotected pick the Hornets received from the Minnesota Timberwolves only ended up being No. 10 overall, but it gave New Orleans the chance to find another lottery talent around Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis. Now, with the Hornets likely to spend at least one more year in the lottery, they’ll have a chance to grow as many as four elite young players together. None were on their roster last year, when a Chris Paul led team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
In contrast, the rumored deal Orlando would receive from Brooklyn would contain only three or four late first-round picks. Even worse, a team that still had Jameer Nelson, Brook Lopez, Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and JJ Redick would have enough talent to push the Magic into the back end of the lottery.
Sending Howard to Brooklyn would be a best-case scenario for the enigmatic center and the NBA as a whole, as it would create a legitimate rival for LeBron’s Miami Heat in the biggest media center in the US. However, none of that should concern Orlando, who would be paying Lopez, Nelson and Turkoglu a lot of money for an outside shot at the playoffs.
The reality is, once the Nets acquired Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace, they were removing any financial incentive Orlando would have to deal them Howard. If Howard's representatives insist that Brooklyn is the only acceptable destination, they should find other teams willing to eat some of the Magic’s bad contracts (Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon) and give Lopez a max deal. There’s certainly no reason for the Magic to overpay Lopez and lock themselves into the mediocrity treadmill just to satisfy Howard.
Howard implying that he will only sign a long-term deal with Brooklyn is a bluff; the Nets don’t have any cap room. If the team with his Bird Rights won’t play ball, he can’t go there. That doesn’t mean Orlando should keep him, but they have a lot more options than just Brooklyn’s package.
From a talent standpoint, the best one out there is still a deal with the Lakers for Andrew Bynum, but acquiring Bynum at this point, with only a year left on his contract, wouldn’t be a lot of time to convince him to stay in the Magic Kingdom long-term.
The best possible deal for Orlando is with the Houston Rockets, a franchise that has been acquiring assets for years precisely for the chance to grab a superstar like Howard. Houston, if they are willing to gamble on picking up Howard without an extension, would give the Magic their best chance to accelerate the rebuilding process. The Rockets have a first-round pick from the Toronto Raptors, who are probably still at least one year away from playoff contention, the cap space to eat some of Orlando’s bad contracts as well as some extremely intriguing high-upside young players locked into rookie scale deals.
The Magic should want all three of Houston’s 2012 first-round picks -- Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones and Royce White. Lamb, a smooth 6’5 shooting guard with a 6’11 wingspan, has a chance to be an All-Star caliber SG; Jones, an athletic 6’9 240 combo forward with a 7’2 wingspan, is a Josh Smith clone and White, an athletic 6’8 270 point forward with a 7’0 wingspan, is a poor man’s LeBron.
There are some off-court concerns with all three, which is why they slipped out of the lottery, but they would combine to make less money than Lopez and their maturation process would keep Orlando firmly in the cellar in their first two years in the NBA. A deal centered around the three rookies and Toronto’s lottery pick would also give the Magic at least two more chances at a high lottery pick of their own (from their record in 2012 and 2013). It would be a clean slate after Howard’s departure.
If they play their cards right, Orlando could have a future as bright as New Orleans. The rumored deal with Brooklyn, on the other hand, would consign them to becoming one of the NBA’s backwaters for most of the next decade.