Orlando Magic fans booed Dwight Howard in is return to the Amway Center last night, still upset with the way he left Orlando. This got me thinking, what if Dwight never left? What would the team look like today? What would it have looked like in the future. Below I project a parallel universe where Dwight Howard stayed in Orlando out to the 2015-2016 season.
That team, led by Howard and an emerging Ryan Anderson, went 37-29, good for a .561 winning percentage. Not bad until you consider that the Magic had a .634 winning percentage in 2011 a .720 winning percentage in both 2008 and 2009. They lost in the first round of the 2012 playoffs for the second year in a row, this time to the Indiana Pacers in what felt proved to be a changing of the guard in the Eastern Conference.
The reality of that season was actually worse than the numbers suggested. The awkward triangle of Howard, Stan Van Gundy, and Otis Smith was so toxic that all three were jettisoned in frustration. You know the rest, after opting in for another guaranteed year, Howard changed his mind again and demanded a trade.
If the Magic didn’t trade Howard stayed, they still would have fired Smith and Van Gundy. Smith had already proven his incompetence, and even though Van Gundy was a great coach, his relationship with Dwight was beyond repair. Rob Hennigan might have still been the choice at GM, but it’s very unlikely that Jacque Vaughn would have been hired as coach. They would have preferred a strong, established name to appease Dwight, and a first year coach wouldn’t cut it (the flip side to that arguments is that Howard would ahve wanted a players coach that was easy to control).
At this point, Dwight would have only had one year remaining on his contract. That means a rebuild was out of the question because the Magic had to impress their star center to convince him to re-sign in Orlando. But even with that in mind, there was very little flexibility on the roster. The Magic had $52.4 million tied up in 6 players (Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, J.J. Redick, Jason Richardson, Glen Davis, and Quentin Richardson). Including cap holds for unrestricted free agents Jameer Nelson and Ryan Anderson, that already put them over the salary cap of $58.044 million.
Signing free agents beyond the mid-level exception was out of the question, so resigning their own guys was key. Instead of letting him go the New Orleans, the Magic would have tried to resign Anderson. Assuming they would be successful, that is another $8.5 million. And the team still needed a point guard, so there goes another $8.6 million per year for Jameer Nelson. That minimal salary cap space would quickly turn into flirting with the luxury tax line.
With Anderson on board, the Magic probably wouldn’t have drafted Andrew Nicholson to be their third power forward. Evan Fournier, Tony Wroten, Miles Plumlee and Marquis Teague were all options with the 19th pick, but none of them are cpapble of moving the needle.
Hedo Turkoglu was about to embark on a steroid suspensions nd his play was already in serious decline, so the Magic needed a small forward, preferably one with some athleticism. Without any good fits in the draft, Gerald Green was probably their only affordable option.
That team isn’t very good, and not much different from the year before. Another .560 winning percentage and first round playoff exit would make sense.
If the Magic had limited choices in 2012-2013, they’d be wearing a straight jacket the next season. Their main priority of course would be resigning Dwight Howard to a max 5 year extension. Given the state of the team, that would be extremely unlikely, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume they could get an extension done.
Assuming that they would cut Hedo Turkoglu to save $6 million of his $12 million, the Magic would have over $64 million committed to 6 players, already over the $58.7 million salary cap. J.J Redick would be a free agent, and the Magic wouldn’t really have any other choice but to re-sign him. There’s no other shooting guard on the roster, with only the mid level exception to plug the team’s many holes. Signing J.J. Redick to the same $6.3 million a year deal he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers this season, would bring the Magic right up against the luxury tax of $71.7 million still needing to sign six more players.
Believe it or not, even though the roster would look very familiar, this team would probably have a better record and playoff result than the previous year. With so many teams in the Eastern Conference tanking, a team with Dwight Howard and shooters would be the third best team in the L-East. 50 wins and a conference semifinal sweep would be fools gold, but it would feel good while it happened.
The following year is more of the same, so let’s skip it. No cap space, a mid-round draft pick, and an early playoff exit. Projection done.
Orlando would finally earn some cap space in the summer of 2015. LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Goran Dragic, Thaddeus Young and Arron Afflalo (remember he was never traded to the Magic as part of a non-existent Dwight deal) are all scheduled to be free agents that summer. But the real prize would be Kevin Love. His shooting would fit perfectly next to Dwight Howard and they would form the best rebounding duo in league history. The Magic would have to consider moving either Redick or Anderson depending on the salary cap, but that wouldn’t be very hard. The reason neither is on the team right now is that the league values their contributions as knock down shooters. Those are always in demand and could easily be moved.
Love is the best case scenario. In reality, the Magic would continue to shuffle their roster through trades before 2015, looking for marginal upgrades at the expense of financial flexibility. You can’t sell a superstar or a fan base on patience when you’re talking about four years down the road. (I’ve intentionally ignored speculating about trades because the trades that actually happen are never the ones that you expect. It’s hard enough to predict trades at the trade deadline, let alone multiple years down the road in a parallel universe).
So would the Magic be better off if Dwight Howard stayed in Orlando? Depends on your definition of better. Howard’s contract and demands would have weighed down the Magic and prevented them from ever reaching the heights of the NBA finals again. There’s not guarantee that the current version of the Magic will ever get there either, but this team eleicits hope, somehting that Dwight had all but eliminated from Orlando.
So while fans continue to boo Howard, it’s important to remember that him staying wasn’t really a good option either. A clean break was best for both parties.
Do you think our Dwight Howard Orlando Magic projections are correct? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below! Want more Magic? Subscribe to our newsletter!