How Long Can Magic Put Off Dwight Howard Trade Talks?

Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Orlando Magic have ended trade talks involving Dwight Howard. The Magic hope to have some early season success and convince Howard -- who has always maintained that he loves Orlando -- that he can compete for championships there. Howard is due to be an unrestricted free agent in July 2012 if he doesn't first sign a contract extension or pick up the 2012-13 option on his current contract.

How long can the Magic wait to trade him, and what are the chances Orlando's hold on Howard will improve compared to its diminishing leverage?

First, we shouldn't assume that Orlando's leverage will necessarily diminish; the Denver Nuggets received a package from the New York Knicks in February as good as one they would have gotten in November in the Carmelo Anthony derby. Why? Because the Knicks remained desperate for a second star to pair with Amar'e Stoudemire. 

The New Jersey Nets have lost bids to grab Tyson Chandler and Nene; chances are now that Kris Humphries returns on a lucrative, short deal and the team reaches for a small forward to replace Travis Outlaw. While Deron Williams was banged up, the Nets went only 7-18 after the All-Star break last season. This probably isn't a playoff team without a significant upgrade on the roster. So the Nets will be desperately after Howard in March as heavily as they are now. (The trade deadline this season is March 15.)

The L.A. Lakers, Howard's other major suitor, will likely also remain enamored of the center, provided that a downgraded roster doesn't run away with the West. (No one expects them to, barring a Chris Paul trade; Lamar Odom is a huge loss.) Howard is so attractive a piece that any team he signals a willingness to remain with long-term will move the skies and Earth to land him. That's not going to change.

But will the Magic become the juggernaut Howard apparently needs them to be? Remember: though the Magic flamed out quickly in last season's playoffs, the team has averaged 55.5 wins per season over the last four years, better than any franchises but the Boston Celtics (58.5) and L.A. Lakers (59). The equivalent of a 60-win team in the shortened season will be one with a 48-18 record -- if Orlando can look like it's heading in that direction, will Howard commit? The Magic did win 59 games in each of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and Howard didn't seem particularly committed long-term then.

That's the question that seems unsolved for Orlando. Otis Smith has built a huge winner centered around Howard. He bet huge on Rashard Lewis, then Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and GIlbert Arenas. The team is capped out even after accounting for the amnesty provision, which excised Arenas' albatross contract. Few consider Glen Davis an upgrade on Brandon Bass, let alone an upgrade that can push the Magic above the Bulls, Heat and Celtics. Other fronts have been quiet. Is there a killer deal that can turn this team into a true titan in 2011-12? It looks unlikely, unless there's an odd way to send Chris Paul to Orlando.

But given the fact that the Magic will be able to get the same packages offered now in March, there's no harm in holding out hope and praying Howard decides he loves Big Baby and Mickey Mouse.

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