As Magic G.M. Otis Smith looked for perspective on how to deal with the trade request of All-Star center Dwight Howard, he sought the counsel of Jazz G.M. Kevin O'Connor. Last February O'Connor was in a similar bind: He had an All-Star, point guard Deron Williams, who looked likely to test the free agent waters in 2012. O'Connor preemptively dealt Williams to the Nets for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, two first-round picks and cash.
When he spoke with Smith, O'Connor pointed out that Williams, Howard and most other members of the 2008 Olympic team—including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and reportedly Chris Paul—had either demanded a trade or declined a contract extension in order to become a free agent. "If you have one of the top five to 10 basketball players in the world, at some point in time you're going to go through it," says Smith of Orlando's ongoing crisis. "The way [teams have] handled it over the last three years has changed, that's all."
When Howard requested a move to the Nets, Lakers or Mavericks in the preseason, the Magic took recent free-agent history into account while considering its options. "We were not going to be forced into that decision," says team president Alex Martins. "We're going to take our time and make a decision based on what is in the best interests of the organization."
In other words, don't expect Howard's future to become clearer any time soon. The consensus around the league is that the Magic won't deal Howard before it hosts the All-Star Game on Feb. 26 to avoid the prospect of having him return to Orlando in another team's uniform. And Martins insists the decision most likely won't come until the March 15 trade deadline.
So what happens if Howard hasn't reversed course by the deadline and committed to remaining with the Magic past this summer, when he can opt out of his contract? "It will be time," says Martins, "to make the determination: Number 1, do we want to take the risk and not trade him without his commitment; or Number 2, do we make the determination that we have very little chance to re-sign him and then ultimately trade him for the best offer we can get."
The Magic has been unimpressed with its trade options. The Nets could offer injured center Brook Lopez (who has been sidelined since the preseason by a broken metatarsal in his right foot, an ominous injury for a 23-year-old big man) and a package of draft picks that would put Orlando on a long-term rebuilding plan. The Lakers haven't been willing to package Pau Gasol with Andrew Bynum, who before this year had been injury-free only once in six seasons. And the Mavs appear willing to wait until summer, when they could have enough cap space to sign both Howard and Williams as free agents to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki.
The Magic hasn't given up hope that Howard will decide to remain in Orlando, where he is the third-highest-paid player in the league (only Bryant and James earn more on and off the court) and the cornerstone of a consistently competitive franchise. The Magic has been the league's second-winningest franchise over the last four years and made the Finals in 2009. "I think we have a pretty good basketball team minus the distractions," says Smith, despite a recent swoon of six losses in eight games. (As of Sunday the Magic was 15--9, just four games behind East-leading Chicago.) If Orlando doesn't participate in a sign-and-trade this summer, Howard would be leaving close to $30 million on the table by signing elsewhere. Is he willing to make such a costly decision in order to leave a franchise where he has accomplished so much? One thing is for sure: This mess won't begin to be cleared up for at least another month.