Ranking the Top-10 Dwight Howard Replacements for the Orlando Magic

Brett David RobertsCorrespondent IAugust 15, 2012

Ranking the Top-10 Dwight Howard Replacements for the Orlando Magic

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    The Magic are looking to tank it this year, so bringing in a stopgap veteran to man the middle makes no sense.  They also just acquired the young and promising Nikola Vucevic in the trade and already have another young body in Gustavo Ayon, so they have some young talent to develop while the rebuilding occurs.  

    Still, there are a number of big power forwards and true centers that could serve as a great boon to the Magic in this process and give them a chance at rebuilding a team with a decent center to serve as a Howard replacement until they are able to land a real heist in June at the NBA draft.  Fittingly, two of the top three prospects in the 2013 draft are centers, Cody Zeller and Nerlens Noel.

    Beyond the draft, however, there are a number of players other teams may be willing to part with who could help the Magic cope with life without Howard.  Regardless of the approach, the Magic are not planning to start Glen "Don't Call Me Big Baby" Davis at center indefinitely, though he did experience success in the 2012 playoffs against the Indiana Pacers.

    And yet, this situation seems eerily familiar…

    Longtime Magic fans remember the quandary the Magic were back in 1995 when Shaquille O'Neal bolted for the Los Angeles Lakers and left a seven-foot, 300-pound gaping hole in the Orlando Magic lineup.  The move caused GM Pat Williams to go into full on panic mode.  

    At the time I was 14 years old, and I called a popular Magic radio show on WDBO 540 AM to suggest that the Magic make a move for Felton Spencer of the Utah Jazz.

    Why?  I reasoned Spencer was a big body who could at least physically replace what Shaq left behind, in terms of size anyway.  It made sense then, and it makes sense now.

    What happened after that?

    They went out and got Spencer.  As any 14-year-old might be inclined to think, I figured Pat Williams had heard my brilliant suggestion and followed suit with what I said.  Weeks later, before the season even began, the Magic then made a move to bring in Rony Seikaly, a former in-state rival for the Miami Heat.  At the time, Seikaly represented a short-term solution to keeping a Magic team relevant, as the team still had a good cast of players and was capable of being a playoff team, though hardly a contender.

    Spencer was then waived.  So much for big dreams.

    With last Friday's trade, it has become clear the Magic have no plans of remaining merely a relevant playoff team.  So, the thinking behind this Dwight Howard replacement is a bit different than the time Shaq left and the Magic roster still had formidable players like Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott and Horace Grant.

    This time the core remaining names are Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and  J.J. Redick, to be concise.  That quartet plus a decent big man likely does not spell a playoff berth.  So, we're going to take a different approach with these 10 big men that could help revitalize the franchise in the long run.

10. Kyle O'Quinn, Orlando

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    Surely, you're wondering what business we have mentioning the 14th pick of the second round in a possible Dwight Howard replacement scenario.  

    O'Quinn does not represent a solution to the problem, but he has shown a lot of promise in summer leagues and the 6'10" Norfolk State product averaged 2.7 blocks per game in the NCAA last year in 31 minutes of play per night.  

    That doesn't scream "Dwight Howard," but the Ekpe Udoh comparison given by Draft Express seems to be pretty accurate, though that is given as his high upside.  While O'Quinn (who actually measured 6'8.5" without shoes) does not represent much more than a solid backup, the Magic do already have him on the roster and he'll help to fill the gap post-Dwight.

9. Gustavo Ayon, Orlando

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    Ayon burst onto the scene as a 27-year-old rookie last year for the New Orleans Hornets and began to take the notice of people everywhere…

    Well, that's a huge overstatement, but at least those who played fantasy basketball (who monitor nearly everyone!) and those who do have NBA league passes got to watch the small market Hornets showcase a Mexican whose game is reminiscent of his predecessor Eduardo Najera.  Both are hard working, good shot blockers and will win fans over with their hustle.  I can't say a lot more for Ayon, but at this point, like O'Quinn, he is on the roster and will be worth keeping an eye on as a possible backup of the future.

8. Tyler Zeller, Cleveland

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    Zeller went 17th overall to the Mavericks in this year's draft, but was then dealt to Cleveland.

    He's a true seven-footer who NBADraft.net compares to former Heat and Hornets (and a season with Boston and Chicago) forward P.J. Brown.  That would be more than enough to satisfy Dallas and all the other teams that benefit from Zeller's services, as Brown was a strong defensive player whose win shares stayed near or above 7.0 for the first seven years of his career (that places him on par with A.C. Green, Terry Cummings, Antawn Jamison, Charles Oakley and Rasheed Wallace, for a point of reference).

    If Zeller plays to that level and the Magic obtained him, they would not be netting a perennial All-Star, but a guy who is a very strong role player and glue guy that can be a featured piece on a contending team.  

    Zeller is a pretty good athlete and has a nice array of moves around the basket, and he should be able to fit into any offense the Magic desire to run, as he already showed he was capable of playing in the up-tempo system of Roy Williams at UNC.  

7. Tiago Splitter, San Antonio

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    Splitter, like many of the Brazilian big men, is extremely coordinated with great footwork.  The reason for this is the soccer-based lifestyle in Brazil, and Splitter's agility makes him both a great defender and excellent rebounder. 

    He's been limited minute-wise playing behind Tim Duncan and sharing backup duties with DeJuan Blair, but he showed a lot of improvement last year, as I wrote for Yahoo! Sports back on January 27.

    His defense showed even greater improvement as he grasped Gregg Popovich's schemes and he worked on a perpetual chink in the armor of most big men, free throws.  At only 27 years of age, he is just getting ready to enter his prime and already posted very impressive per-minute production last year, posting 17.6 points per-36, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.  Splitter will likely never be an All-Star, but his ceiling is higher than that of an average NBA center.

    Splitter is owed about $4 million this year and $5 million next year.  That type of mid-level exception level salary makes him an attractive target and easy player to trade for, if the Spurs found that the Magic held a piece that they felt could increase their chances of winning a title.  With Manu Ginobili's perpetual state of injury, Magic shooting guard J.J. Redick's expiring contract could prove to be too much for the Spurs to resist. 

6. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando

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    Vucevic is the third (and highest rated) big man for the Magic mentioned in this slide show.  At only 21 years of age, he is the best option the Magic have for a long-term replacement, given his upside and skills.  He posted outstanding per-36 numbers last year: 12.5 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks.  The Sixers also spent a high draft pick on the Southern Cal product, drafting him 16th overall in 2011.

    Vucevic only saw more than 20 minutes per game in 15 of the 66 regular season games though, and played less than three minutes total in the 2012 playoffs.  He's far from an unknown, but he is unproven.  Still, he ranks high both because he is already on the roster and because he could develop into a very talented big man capable of being an NBA-level starter.  He's definitely worth keeping an eye on this year.

5. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento

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    Cousins, as many knew he would be, has been a headache for the Kings organization since day one.  He's whiny, out of shape and hasn't seemed to adjust to life on a horrible team after thriving at the heralded Kentucky program in college.  

    So why would the Magic want him?

    Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery, and if 2012 No. 5 overall draft pick Thomas Robinson plays well enough (and most think he will), they may look to import a talent more suitable to Robinson's game, which would likely not be the ball demanding Cousins.  

    Cousins can still score very well and has a knack for the game, something which can't be taught.  And even if it couldn't, I wrote of the importance of Chris Webber's mentoring with Cousins back on March 6 for Yahoo! Sports.  If Cousins can't do it, Webber should be able to teach him.

    Cousins must cut down on his turnovers, but after this year's $3.8 million salary, he is owed no more years on his contract, as all are team options.  That means the Magic could likely obtain him as an expiring contract for pennies on the dollar, and if the Kings were to receive anyone of value, then they may be inclined to pull the trigger. 

    Either way, I don't know if Kings GM Joe Axelson is going to want to bring him back after his issues last season with coaching and his inability to adapt to life in the NBA.

4. Marcin Gortat, Phoenix

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    Oh, hello there, again, Polish Hammer.  Gortat, as many of you will recall, has already had his time in Orlando and he shined brilliantly, but former GM Otis Smith more or less gave him away in a foolish trade that only made sense from a short-term perspective.  

    Flourishing with Steve Nash last year, Gortat developed into a double-double machine, posting 15.4 points per game and 10 rebounds per game.  Gortat is just now hitting his prime at age 28 and is capable of making an impact on both ends of the court.  

    Without Nash, he may not break the cusp and become an All-Star as I would have been inclined to say had Nash remained in Phoenix, but getting Gortat back would cover a multitude of sins by Smith and provide the Magic with a big man who can bang with the best in the league.

3. Al Jefferson, Utah

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    The Jazz are fortunate enough to have the "problem" of having two high-caliber centers.  The problem is, of course, that only one of them can play at a time, as neither second-year man Enes Kanter nor veteran Al Jefferson are versatile enough nor nimble enough to man the 4-spot.  

    So why would they choose to keep Kanter, who is relatively unproven, over Jefferson?

    Age.  Simple and flat.  Jefferson is now 27, while Kanter is a mere 20.  Because, like the Magic, the Jazz are a good ways away from contention, so it makes sense to roll with the younger option here.  Kanter showed enough promise in limited minutes last year (13.2 per game) to hint that he definitely could be their big of the future.

    In Jefferson, the Magic would obtain a player whose talents have always been at an all-star level yet he has never made an All-Star team.  In 2008-09, his usage rate was the eighth highest in the NBA and he's 41st all-time in blocked shot percentage (3.6 percent).  Despite questions regarding the health of his knees following his 2008-09 injury, Jefferson has missed only 11 games the last three seasons and played the entire 2010-11 campaign.

    Again, fantasy basketball geeks will know that Jefferson is one of the top centers in the game due to his high field-goal percentage and efficient stat line, not to mention his good free-throw percentage (77 percent last year, 76 percent in 2010-2011).  Hitting those free throws will provide cool air for Magic fans who were tired of watching Howard clank up total bricks. 

    His per-game averages last season of 19.2 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game aren't worlds worse than Howard, or even the second-best center in the league, Andrew Bynum.

    In many ways, it would seem that the Jazz would be crazy to give up Jefferson, which only would further beg the question, "Why did they draft Kanter No. 3 overall in 2011 to begin with?"

2. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky Wildcats

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    Noel is said to have a high upside.  The thing is, as often with raw big men, no one knows just quite how high.  NBADraft.net compares the high-top fade donning big man to NBA veteran Marcus Camby.  Camby at one point was more than just a defensive body off the bench, so it's important not to underestimate this upside.

    Noel is best known for his shot-blocking ability and some have gone as far as to say he may even be a better shot-blocker than 2012 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis.  He's 6'11" with a 7'4" wing span which will give him the length to match up with anyone in the league He's a natural athlete, even if he may not yet be a developed basketball player.  That speaks well to his potential to develop, because we know that great athletes are easier to turn into great basketball players.

    How good will Noel be?  Well, we'll begin to find out this fall as he matriculates to the University of Kentucky for what is almost certain to be a one and done college career.  NBA scouts will be interested to see how much time Noel spends in the weight room as his 216-pound body could use a little meat, to say the very least.  Still, even with his slight frame, he has shown he can still bang with bigger bodies.  

    All of these traits speak to what could be a very promising career.  I'm not going to call him the next Hakeem Olajuwon, but we'll temper our expectations and expect a player at least as good as Camby was in his prime, which would make him worth a high lottery selection.  He is currently projected by NBADraft.net to go fourth overall in the draft.

1. Cody Zeller, Indiana Hoosiers

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    According to former Bleacher Report analyst and FanSided Knicks blogger Matt Shetler, Cody Zeller is easily the best of the Zeller brothers.  He states that his better athleticism and ability to run the court will enable him to be a superior player to his brother Tyler.  Shetler also cites his outstanding fundamentals and great mid-range game, which he feels will enable Zeller to translate to a high level talent in the NBA.

    NBADraft.net agrees with Shetler.  They project the 7 footer from Indiana to go first overall, and compare him to LaMarcus Aldridge.  Citing his excellent court smarts and efficient manner with the basketball, they feel he has the footwork and agility to eventually become the kind of offensive talent that a team could be built around.

    One thing I've noticed is that Zeller isn't going to be much of a defensive presence.  He lacks shot-blocking talent and really appears to be what many other big men have been defensively.  I'm not trying to stereotype as much as base this on precedence, and I'd like to think at any rate that he is more Jack Sikma than he is Eric Montross.  

    The thing is, there's just no way of knowing these things until we see these guys perform on the biggest stage.  Zeller may dominate for another year at the college ranks but fail to thrive once he suits up with the big boys.  He's going to be first-round talent, and I'd be shocked if he fell out of the lottery, but to project him as the No. 1 overall selection seems to be a bit premature. 

    Either way, Magic fans will be eager for a big man who can put the ball in the basket after watching Howard put up 20/20 games in his sleep for so long, and Zeller could eventually be the type of talent to erase the Dwightmare that plagued the organization over the last year.