Things haven't exactly gone according to plan in the seven months since Dwight Howard finally forced himself out of Orlando. A shell of himself after undergoing major back surgery at the end of last season, Howard hasn't been able to make the same impact on either side of the ball in L.A. that he did in Orlando, while a Lakers team overflowing with Hall of Famers has been clawing its way back into the playoff race.
The marriage between Howard and Kobe Bryant hasn't gone as well as everyone hoped, but L.A. seems to have turned the corner in the last few weeks. Since bottoming out at 17-25 in late January, the Lakers have gone 16-6 to get themselves into a tie with the Jazz for the No. 8 seed out West. Tuesday night will have special meaning for Howard, but it's also a game L.A. desperately needs, as it's the first of a tough three-game road trip that also features games in Atlanta and Indiana over the next four days.
Orlando, meanwhile, has plummeted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference without their former franchise center, but there's still plenty of optimism surrounding the team. New general manager Rob Hennigan, a disciple of Thunder GM Sam Presti, has put the same fire sale approach into place that worked so well in Oklahoma City. Not only did they turn Howard into multiple young assets -- Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and several future first-round picks -- but they'll be picking at the top of the lottery over the next few seasons, giving them multiple chances to find their next franchise player.
And while the Magic have an 18-46 record this season, they still have enough veteran talent on hand that L.A. can't afford to overlook this game. The strength of their team is in the backcourt, where they start two well-regarded pros in Jameer Nelson, the last remaining link to Howard's great Orlando teams, and Arron Afflalo, a solid two-way starter who came over in the Howard deal. Off the bench, they have two more veterans they acquired in trades -- Al Harrington and Beno Udrih -- who are trying to prove they still belong in the NBA.
Orlando's New Plan
The latest edition of the melodrama surrounding Howard revolved around his comments to a Los Angeles television station that he lead an Orlando team "full of guys no one else wanted." That generated another predictable firestorm surrounding the embattled superstar, but his larger point -- that Orlando hadn't developed enough young talent around him to be a consistent contender -- makes some sense. Ironically enough, the Magic's haste to prevent Howard from leaving like Shaquille O'Neal by surrounding him with "win-now" veterans ended up paving the way for his eventual departure.
The firing of Otis Smith and the hiring of Henningan represented a sea change in the franchise's philosophy. In the seven months since Howard left, Orlando has acquired a number of interesting young prospects, most of whom -- Vucevic, Andrew Nicholson, Moe Harkless, Tobias Harris, Doron Lamb -- are already receiving significant playing time. Besides Vucevic, it's too soon to say which will stay with the Magic long-term, but all have shown at least a glimpse of their potential this season. No matter what happens on Tuesday night, the future appears bright in Orlando.