Dwight Howard is one of the NBA's most unique talents, which has worked to the Orlando Magic's benefit for the past seven seasons but could become a problem if Howard elects to leave as a free agent next summer. Howard's combination of skills makes him virtually irreplaceable.
As compared to the New Orleans Hornets' decision with their own superstar impending free agent, Chris Paul, the Magic have advantages and disadvantages. Orlando can make a more compelling case that Howard can win without going anywhere. The Magic are just two years removed from the NBA Finals, and even in a 2010-11 season that ended in a disappointing first-round playoff exit, Orlando boasted the league's fifth-best regular-season point differential -- ranking ahead of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.
If Howard signs elsewhere, however, the Magic's options would be limited. Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu alone will make more than $30 million in 2012-13, making it unlikely that Orlando will have any meaningful cap space. Given that replacing Howard in free agency is not an option, the Magic are likely to get more for Howard by trading him now than in a sign-and-trade deal with limited leverage.
The problem with a Howard trade is that almost any move Orlando could make would dramatically alter the structure of the team. Stan Van Gundy has built his system around Howard at both ends of the floor. On offense, the Magic's perimeter shooters rely on the double-teams Howard draws to create open looks beyond the arc. The playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks demonstrated how much those players need Howard. Because the Hawks were able to contain Howard with a single defender, outside shots dried up and Orlando shot just 26.2 percent from 3-point range.
The value of the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year on defense is obvious, but the more subtle aspect of Howard's game is how his dominant defensive rebounding allows the Magic to play weak rebounders such as Brandon Bass and Rashard Lewis at power forward while still controlling the glass. Orlando had the league's top defensive rebound percentage last season and has benefited from the floor spacing provided by versatile power forwards.