Superman Stays in Orlando… For Now

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 After flip-flopping more often than a politician over the last couple days, Dwight Howard finally agreed to end the ‘will he, won’t he’ speculation surrounding his immediate future. Indecision 2012 has thankfully come to a close for now, as Howard waived his early termination option and decided to finish out his current contract with the Magic, which expires in 2013. 

Sorry Jay-Z, it will be tougher to sell those Brooklyn Nets’ season tickets.

After four months of repeatedly telling the Magic that he wished to be traded, openly discussing his preferred destinations, and undermining his teammates in the process, Howard’s change of heart yesterday came as quite a shock. Even more so given Howard’s statements after Tuesday’s win against Miami, when he asserted that he would like to stay until the end of the season, but that Orlando would have to ‘roll the dice’ with him in the summer. Not a statement that would have been endorsed by any good P.R. representative to say the least. But then, on Wednesday, we finally edged towards partial closure.

On the plane home from Orlando’s game in San Antonio, Howard mercifully made a final decision. Whether because Otis Smith or owner Richard DeVos slipped something in his drink, or perhaps because he was feeling sentimental about the only team he has ever known, Howard decided that he was staying in Orlando for the time being.

Magic President Alex Martins practically beamed with satisfaction at yesterday’s press conference, commending Howard for his loyalty and dedication to the franchise. Howard just looked tired. He chose his words carefully and was noticeably relieved to be done with all the speculation.

Unfortunately for the Magic however, the speculation about Howard’s future is far from over. Howard and the Magic have simply delayed the inevitable for one more year. It is the basketball equivalent of papering over the cracks.

Howard had the option of inking a five-year extension to what remained of his current contract. Such an extension would have committed Howard to the Orlando Magic through the prime years of his career. Instead, what Howard has essentially told the organization with his partial commitment, is that he wants to push for a championship this year and then see whether Smith, DeVos and company can put serious pieces in place during the off-season. The Magic have bought themselves one more year to convince Howard to stay past 2013.
Are the Magic in a position to acquire those aforementioned ‘serious pieces’, players that would persuade Howard that he could win championships in the years to come?

The answer, unfortunately for Magic fans, is probably not. And here is why.

Firstly, the Magic lack the attractive assets that would be necessary to trade for a superstar player to pair with Howard. After Howard, the Magic’s best player is Ryan Anderson, a 3 point shooting power forward who can rebound, but is not likely to excite potential trading partners: teams that have the type of elite point-guards and shot-makers that the Magic desperately need. The Magic are simply not getting a Deron Williams type player without completely gutting their team. They possess a lot of solid role players, and a couple good ones, but nothing that allows them major leverage in a trade for another all-star caliber player.

Secondly, and most crucially, the Magic have major problems with cap flexibility. Players like Jason Richardson, Jameer Nelson and Glen Davis are tied in with the team for another couple seasons. The real headache, however, is Hedo Turkoglu’s horrific contract. Turkoglu is making 11 and 12 million dollars over the next two years respectively and presents a major obstacle to the Magic’s plan of freeing up the cap space required to add quality players that will compliment Howard.
Alarmingly for the Magic, teams like Dallas, Chicago and Boston will soon possess the cap space needed to make a run at signing Howard.

For the short-term however, Howard is staying in Orlando and has stated that he believes his team can make a push for the championship this season. Winning a championship this year might be another way to convince Howard to stay for the long term.

Admittedly the Magic have done remarkably well, especially given the distractions surrounding the team. They have had impressive wins over the likes of Miami and Chicago recently, and are sitting comfortably as the third seed in the East. Stan Van Gundy should be a serious contender for coach of the year given the job he has done amid what has been a media circus.

However, does anyone who watches basketball closely really share Howard’s optimism about his team’s chances this year? I highly doubt it.

The Magic are indeed dangerous, and can beat anyone on a given night, but they are a flawed team that lives and dies by the three point shot. The Magic are among the league leaders in three point shots attempted per game. Howard is their only real inside presence, albeit the best inside presence in the league, but their offense is structured around perimeter shooting.

Generally the ball is fed down low to Howard, who frequently draws the double team and kicks it out to the likes of Anderson and Richardson. If the long range shooting goes cold, the onus is on Howard to shoulder the offensive load. Howard is more than capable for the most part, but his awful free throw shooting becomes a major liability down the stretch in close games. The Magic simply do not possess that dynamic two-guard or small forward who can beat defenders off the dribble and create their own shot: a player that would give them a much needed scoring alternative and take the pressure off Howard.

Without a doubt the Magic are a good team—capable enough to win in the first round of the playoffs for sure, but they are not getting past Chicago or Miami in a seven game series. It is just not happening.

So what does that mean for Howard’s future in Orlando? Well, unless Orlando goes on a miracle run in June, or Smith works some miracles of his own in the off-season, Howard will not likely be a member of the Orlando Magic past next year’s trade deadline.

Not that any of this should fully diminish the achievements of Smith and Martins in convincing Howard to stay another year. Magic fans and management will be happy and content for now—after all, their team still has another year to benefit from possessing one of the NBA’s most dominant players. I just hope they enjoy the experience while it lasts. 
 
 Zach Salzmann is an avid follower of the NBA. When he is not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he is watching something else sports-related.

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