The real winners of the Dwight Howard trade? The answer will surprise

Thursday July 11th, 2013

Nikola Vucevic (right) replaced Dwight Howard in Orlando and should be a Magic fixture for years to come.
John Raoux/AP

There are trades that are outright steals for one team and other trades that are good for all teams involved, but the blockbuster of last August was something else entirely. That complex deal, involving most notably Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala, was, with one exception, a trade that helped teams that didn't participate in it.

The news Wednesday night of Bynum's decision to sign a heavily leveraged two-year deal with the Cavaliers ensured that the only obvious winner in the fiasco was the one team that appeared to be operating from a position of weakness last summer. The Magic were forced to move Howard because the league's best center refused to sign on long term. As negotiations progressed, rookie GM Rob Hennigan was second-guessed for not taking on Bynum from the Lakers in a deal for Howard, and he was criticized for rejecting a package from the Nets that included Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, Marshon Brooks and four first-round picks.

GOLLIVER: Cavs take carefully weighed risk in signing Bynum

The Magic went on to lose 62 games last season and yet they might turn out to be the only winners in the four-team, 12-player, five-pick deal. They unloaded salaries while coming away with three first-round picks, 22-year-old center Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo and Maurice Harkless, Al Harrington and rookie Romero Osby, who arrived in a second-round pick acquired in the trade. (The Magic also received Christian Eyenga and Josh McRoberts, whose salaries were excised from the roster last February.)

Afflalo has value moving forward and Harkless started 59 games as a 19-year-old small forward. But the real keeper right now appears to be the 6-foot-10 Vucevic, who produced 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds in 33.2 minutes last season. The Magic can look forward to years of improvement from him, which puts them in better shape -- for the time being -- than the Lakers, 76ers or Nuggets, each of whom lost their main asset from the trade within one year.

The Lakers' acquisition of Howard left them with all kinds of indigestion. He spent last season recovering from back surgery and a shoulder injury, was unhappy to be coached by Mike D'Antoni and felt stifled by Kobe Bryant as the decimated Lakers were swept in the opening round by San Antonio. So which was the bigger mistake for the Lakers -- failing to re-sign him, or investing in him in the first place? The final assessment can't be made until we see what the Lakers do with their cap space next summer in what promises to be a strong free-agent class led by LeBron James, if he chooses to opt out. They may yet wind up with a stronger chance of winning the title than they would have with Howard, who has much to prove in that regard.

GIVE AND GO: Debating highs and lows of offseason thus far

If nothing else, the deal enabled the Lakers to end their attachment to Bynum, whose arrival in Philadelphia destroyed the 76ers' management team. In a series of timed detonations, the Sixers lost coach Doug Collins, hired a new GM in Sam Hinkie and brought in Scott O'Neil as the CEO. All of this can be traced back to the negative impact of Bynum, who was supposed to transform the Sixers into a low-post team with deep playoff aspirations. Instead they went from Game 7 of the second round in 2012 to 48 losses last season, and it was entirely because they surrendered Iguodala, Vucevic, Harkless (and a future No. 1 pick) while receiving not one second of performance from Bynum, who suffered a setback to his injured knees while bowling.

The trade wound up helping innocent bystanders. The Bucks sneaked into the playoffs with 38 wins because the 76ers fell into the lottery. Philadelphia responded by trading point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for the sixth pick in 2013, shot-blocking big man Nerlens Noel, who himself will miss the opening of next season while recovering from knee surgery, and a protected first-round pick in 2014.

GOLLIVER: Lakers, Thunder hurt worst by Howard's move to Rockets

The Nuggets received a short-term boost from Iguodala, who helped them win a franchise-record 57 games. Then, as if cursed by the trade, they lost Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, Coach of the Year George Karl and, finally, Iguodala, who took less money to sign with the Warriors -- the team that upset his Nuggets in the opening round.

The beneficiaries of the deal turn out to be the Rockets, who exploited Howard's unhappiness with the Lakers in order to pair him with James Harden; the Warriors, who beat Iguodala before he joined them; and the Magic, who must endure another miserable year before entering next summer with the promising formula of young assets, multiple draft picks and cap space. While Vucevic doesn't appear likely to become an elite big man, he is still developing, is likely to remain under contract for years to come and he does have his health.

When you consider that the Lakers now find themselves to be vulnerable with an aging roster, and that Bynum has agreed to no more than $6 million guaranteed in a two-year, $24 million deal with the Cavaliers, it shows that contract security and physical well-being cannot be taken for granted. Looking around at the debris of last year's mega-deal, the Magic will attest to that much.

MORE COVERAGE: Rockets title favs? | Pressure all now on Howard

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