Published December 22, 2011
| Sports Network
Here is what we do know. Howard can be a free agent at season's end and though he has walked a fine line with his comments toward the franchise in an effort to stay on the city's good side, he has not taken his request for a trade off the table.
He could be traded by the time you read this. He may be shipped off by the start of the regular season on Christmas Day. He might be dealt by the trade deadline. He could finish the season in a Magic uniform.
Talk about distractions.
As of now, the Magic are moving forward with the expectation that the three- time Defensive Player of the Year will be their starting center on Dec. 25. While general manager Otis Smith is fielding offers for his All-Star, with the New Jersey Nets emerging as possible frontrunners, he isn't just going to give Howard away. Smith surely saw the haul the New Orleans Hornets got for star point guard Chris Paul and won't settle for anything less, even if it means answering questions about Howard's status for most of the season.
"I'm willing to keep him in this uniform as long as I can possibly keep him in this uniform. That may mean, as I said, all the way up until the end of the season," Smith said during camp. "I think I told [the media] that the first day. That really hasn't really changed. Our objective is to keep him in a Magic uniform as long as we possibly can. With that said, we could end up going to the end of the season."
Make no mistake, Orlando has a good shot at the playoffs with Howard but would likely drop to the middle or bottom tier of the conference without the 26- year-old regardless of the haul it gets in return. The Magic have little room for error thanks to the super tandem in Miami and the fact that they were bounced out of the first round in the 2010-11 playoffs after reaching the NBA Finals in 2009 and the East finals the following year.
There is no doubt that the relationship between Howard and the Magic has been successful up to this point. Only the Lakers and Celtics have more wins than the franchise over the past four seasons, with Orlando reaching 50 wins in the regular season in each year of that span.
However, Howard has now become a 6-foot-11 distraction, even if he isn't willing to admit it.
"I'm not going to talk about that everyday," said Howard on Dec. 15 of his trade request. "It still stands. We know what's going on. I talked to Otis ... and what we talk about is going to stay between me and him."
2010-11 Results: 52-30, second in Southeast; Lost in first round to Atlanta.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
FRONTCOURT: To his credit, Howard will continue to play hard for the Magic for as long as he is a member of the franchise. That's good news for Orlando given that he is a force on both ends of the court.
Howard is the first player in NBA history to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award in three straight seasons and is just the third three-time winner, joining Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace, who won four each.
Then there is Howard's offensive game, which saw the 265-pounder average a career-high 22.9 points per game a year ago with 14.1 rebounds a night, the second-best single-season total of his career. There is no doubt that his possible departure leaves a big hole.
"Right now, Otis is going to continue to try and make this team better and I'm going to do my part on the court as long I'm here to get our team better and to make myself a better leader for this team," said Howard, who also added the he worked on his shooting and reading the defense better this summer.
The Magic attempted to get Howard some help in the dirty areas this year by acquiring the 6-foot-9 Glen Davis in a trade with Boston for forward Brandon Bass. Davis has been to the NBA Finals with the Celtics and will now get his first real chance to start after averaging career-bests 11.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game a season ago.
He'll also look to lead by example in showing the Magic what they need to do to get back to the Finals.
"Yeah, that's my role. My role is doing the things that other people don't think about doing; setting the screen, being there for the next guy, making sure everybody's accountable," said Davis.
Tough doesn't really describe starting small forward Hedo Turkoglu anymore as he will be 33 by season's end. He did make 56 starts with the Magic after being reacquired by the club from Phoenix during the season, but averaged just 11.4 points per game. He could also be on the move in a possible Howard deal.
BACKCOURT: Even with a trade of Howard, Orlando's starting guard situation isn't likely to change. Those positions will be manned by the re-signed Jason Richardson and solid point guard Jameer Nelson.
Nelson may be looking to prove something in the wake of his good friend Howard's trade request, showing the big man that the Magic can win with their current core. The seven-year pro averaged a career-best six assists per game last year and also averaged just over 13 points a night while playing solid defense.
Richardson, meanwhile, was also acquired from Phoenix in the Turkoglu deal that sent Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat and a 2011 first-round draft pick to the Suns. He represents Orlando's best shooting option, hitting at a 39.5 percent clip from three-point range.
"Jason is a tremendous competitor who is great in the open floor and can drain the three-point shot," said Smith. "We are very happy to have him back in a Magic uniform."
Richardson will likely be one of the main players counted on by Stan Van Gundy to add to the offense if Howard is dealt, though the head coach wants all of his players to help with the scoring.
"I think the thing we have to do a better job of is those guys have to treat those plays as not just their chance to shoot the ball, but to make plays for other people," said Van Gundy. "If they can create offense for our team and get us good shots, then, whoever it is, you can go to them and ride them and the whole thing. But if it's just a matter of 'my play, my shot' that's not going to work."
BENCH: Any trade of Howard will need to net a big man in return given the lack of depth behind the star center. Orlando's best options when Howard needs a breather are a pair of young 6-foot-10 forwards in Ryan Anderson and Earl Clark. The Magic also added a pair of big men through the last two drafts in Justin Harper and Daniel Orton.
The Magic are much deeper at the other three spots and have a veteran reserve for Turkoglu in 11-year pro Quentin Richardson. A long-time starter with the Clippers, Suns, Knicks and Heat, Richardson scored just 4.4 points in 57 games (19 starts) with the Magic last year.
J.J. Redick is a sniper off the bench who can turn the momentum of a game with his shot, while Chris Duhon is an experienced point guard off the bench. Six-year vet Von Wafer, who was also acquired from Boston, has turned heads during Orlando's brief camp as well, with Van Gundy praising his quick step, though the coach said Wafer needs to improve on defense.
Orlando also brought in guard Larry Hughes to fill multiple roles.
"I'm a lot more encouraged watching our team practice. We have a very good and deep team, better than I actually anticipated coming in to this whole thing," Smith said of his team. "Deeper at a lot of positions. Maybe we're not deep behind Dwight, but I like our team, I like where it is and I like the energy we're playing with."
COACHING: Van Gundy became the second-fastest active coach in the NBA to 300 career wins last season and has meshed well with the Magic since coming on board. Normally, his job security would start to be questioned given Orlando's recent backward trending, but a trade of Howard would likely wipe the slate clean for the coach.
OUTLOOK: Orlando's outlook hinges upon what uniform Howard is wearing. Even in a division with the LeBron James-led Heat, quality big men are always in demand in the NBA and Howard's presence in Orlando makes them a playoff contender regardless.
Howard is still the leader of the Magic and he will need to avoid alienating his teammates while trade winds continue to swirl.
"It's not calmed down, but like I told the guys 'I'm here right now. That's the only thing that matters.' There's no need to talk about any trades or whatever is going on on ESPN or in the paper," Howard said of the circus-like atmosphere in Orlando. "Don't bring it in the locker room and don't bring it on the court. Our job is to get better and that's the focus."
Orlando has a lot of solid pieces it can put on the floor, but those cogs were all brought in to fit around Howard. The loss of the perennial All-Star would certainly knock the Magic down some pegs in the Eastern Conference pecking order.