When the Orlando Magic shipped Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers without getting Andrew Bynum in return, it didn't seem like a very smart move. Well, with all that's happened since that four-team August deal, it turns out the Magic knew what they were doing.
Any analysis of Orlando's shrewd thinking has to start with the bullet it dodged by not acquiring Bynum. And to be fair, there was a decent amount of luck involved on that front.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! reported in July that the Lakers and Magic were pretty deeply involved in trade talks and that the two teams were likely to swap big men in a much more limited deal than the one that ultimately came about. But Bynum would give no assurances that he'd re-sign with the Magic, which understandably made them question whether it was wise to ship out their most valuable asset without some promise of a long-term commitment.
So instead of taking back Bynum in exchange for Howard, the deal expanded, netting the Magic a haul that included Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo, rookie Maurice Harkless and a handful of future first-round picks.
In place of Bynum, whose basketball future is very much in jeopardy because of knee problems that have sidelined him all year, the Magic got a handful of young, useful pieces around which they could begin their rebuilding effort in the post-Howard era.
Vucevic, who came over from the Sixers, is already a legitimate starting center at age 22. On the season, the young big man is averaging 12.2 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field. Given his obvious skill and age, there's a strong chance that he matures into a genuine star for the Magic. There have already been glimpses of that potential this year, too; Vucevic notably hauled in more than 20 rebounds in both games the Magic played against the Miami Heat this season.
Besides the young seven-footer, adding Harkless and Afflalo has given the Magic an intriguing rookie and a proven veteran on the wing.
But the rebuilding process didn't stop with the big trade this past summer.
By dealing J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks at the deadline, Orlando got back second-year player Tobias Harris (and Beno Udrih and Doron Lamb). All Harris has done since coming over from the Bucks is average 15.6 points and 7.4 rebounds while winning a starting job after just seven games as a reserve.
The Harris deal represented the second straight time that the Magic managed to orchestrate a favorable trade while working from a position of weakness. As was the case with Howard, every team in the league knew that the Magic were just going to lose Redick as a free agent this summer, so the fact that Orlando was able to get a starting-quality player in return is yet another testament to the front office's capability.
Orlando's cap situation is still something of a mess, but that's mostly because Hedo Turkoglu has a player option worth $12 million next year and a few players (Jameer Nelson, Al Harrington and Glen Davis, to name a few) are pretty substantially overpaid.
But by 2014-15, the Magic will have just $22 million committed to player salaries, which means there'll be plenty of dough to spend on the next phase of the team's rebuilding effort.
And that next phase is simple: The Magic have to acquire a star.
With some nice pieces already in the mix, the Magic are going to have to obtain a top-flight player if they're ever to return to prominence in the East. It might be tough to lure a free agent to Orlando, but the Magic will certainly have the cap space to try in the summer of 2014.
More likely, though, Orlando will have to rebuild through the draft.
Thanks to a sure lottery pick of their own, plus an additional first-rounder in 2014, 2015 and 2017 from the Howard trade, the Magic have enough ammo to take a shotgun approach to drafting their next superstar. With that many selections, the odds seem pretty good that they'll hit the mark on one of them.
They're still a couple of years away from relevance, but the Magic definitely have the right combination of youthful rotation pieces, impending cap space and draft picks to get there.
Oh, and most importantly, they don't have Bynum around to gum up the works.