The Orlando Magic finally traded Dwight Howard, one of the best players in the NBA, in a four-team swap. Howard was clearly the best player in the trade. And by divine anti-providence, the Magic ended up with the worst package in the deal.
The L.A. Lakers basically swapped Andrew Bynum for Dwight, Earl Clark and Chris Duhon, the latter two players representing salary fluff. (Duhon will battle Steve Blake for minutes. I can't think of anything I look forward to avoiding like the plague more than a minutes battle between Chris Duhon and Steve Blake. Save us, Darius Morris!) The Philadelphia 76ers swapped Andre Iguodala, Moe Harkless and Nikola Vucevic for West All-Star starting center Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson. The Denver Nuggets swapped Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington for Iguodala. And the Magic swapped Howard, Duhon and Clark for ... Afflalo, Harrington, Harkless, Vucevic and three picks that will almost assuredly be in the 20s.
The Magic took the extraordinary step of lighting it all on fire to become really bad -- a time-honored NBA tradition -- so that they can again become really good. The only problem is this: the teams that usually try to get really bad in order to get really good pick up some real young assets to help out on the upswing. Harkless was the No. 15 pick in June's draft. Vucevic went No. 16 in the awful 2011 draft. None of the picks the Magic receive will be worth a whole lot unless GM Rob Hennigan hits home runs. Afflalo is a nice player who is nothing close to a star, and is paid pretty well. (He's due about $30 million over the next four years.) Harrington is a player who'd be just fine on a contending team that needs a stretch four in spot minutes.
None of those assets are setting the Magic up for a bright future. I'm bullish on Harkless, but he projects as a starting-level combo forward, not a star. Vucevic's ceiling is starting big man -- not terrible, but not promising. Even great teams rarely pick stars in the 20s. Afflalo is the definition of "solid piece, and nothing more." Harrington should already be on the first flight out of Orlando, lest he and Glen Davis start getting into shooting contests.
The Magic went from a starting frontcourt of Dwight Howard and Ryan Anderson to Nikola Vucevic and Gustavo Ayon, and have Moe Harkless and Arron Afflalo to show for it. Needless to say, whether he's been in full control or not, it has been a disastrous beginning to Rob Hennigan's Orlando career.
He didn't create the toxic situation in which Howard basically had to be traded by the February deadline, but this result is pretty near the bottom of the barrel. More than anything, it's proof that it's better to trade your stars as soon as it becomes apparent that they will eventually need to be traded. I say we call it the O'Connor Theory, in honor of the Jazz's Kevin O'Connor, who brilliantly if dangerously jettisoned Deron Williams as soon as it became apparent that the point guard would at the very least flirt with big markets when free agency arrived. The Jazz got an awesome package for Williams, including actual lottery picks and a brilliant prospect in Derrick Favors.
The New Orleans Hornets didn't move early like the Jazz -- they waited until Chris Paul actually made a trade request a year before free agency -- but they moved quickly once reality set in. And they landed Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and a lottery pick. It worked.
The only other recent case in which the team waited an incredibly long time was the Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony trade; that happened to work out for Denver as the Knicks bidded against both themselves and the idea of New York exceptionalism (an awestriking feat) to give Masai Ujiri the farm. The Magic waited an incredibly long time, and even bought themselves a year by plying Dwight with jelly beans, but ended up the suckers.
The best case scenario for the Magic is to totally bottom out this season and pick up a high pick with their own first-round selection. So basically, the best case scenario for the Magic is to repeat the glory of the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, only with Moe Harkless and Nikola Vucevic instead of Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo. The amazing thing is that this type of trade completely destroys the rationale for other moves made by the Magic this offseason. Jameer Nelson can't be moved in the deal because he just signed a three-year, $19 million contract with the Magic. Consider that for a second: a team lighting it all on fire has a 30-year-old on a new three-year deal worth $19 million.
This team also has Big Baby Davis (about $20 million over three years) and Hedo Turkoglu (guaranteed $18 million over the next two seasons). Harrington is guaranteed $14 million over four years. Nelson, Harrington and Afflalo aren't going to tank, and in his first head coaching job, I'm not sure Jacque Vaughn is prepared to bench his few veterans for the greater good. This is a toxic situation going into the season if there are not additional moves ready to pop. (And again, Nelson can't be moved until January 15. Afflalo and Harrington can't be moved in multi-player deals until December.) My initial reading judges this as amazingly worse that the '12 Bobcats. That's sort of amazing for a team that until last night had Dwight Freaking Howard on its roster, right?
Trade your young stars before you can be convinced to take a deal this bad, NBA teams. The Magic waited too long for the sun to rise, and now it'll be dark for a long, long time.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.