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 three-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.
So how could the Magic maintain continuity without Howard? There is only one real option: Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum.
The numbers bear out this conventional wisdom. Our SCHOENE Projection System begins with similarity scores that use 13 categories, including height and weight, to match players to their peers with a maximum score of 100. Over the past three seasons, Tim Duncan is the only NBA player to score a similarity of 90 or greater with Howard, and that's at precisely 90.0--about the cutoff for any meaningful comparison. Bynum, at 88.1, ranks second.
Bynum was even more Howard-like in his excellent second half of last season. Looking solely at that period, Bynum's similarity to Howard increases to 92.6. Bynum improved his defensive rebounding, grabbing 29.4 percent of all opponent misses after the All-Star break (Howard was at 30.6 percent in 2010-11). He also blocked an impressive 5.8 percent of all two-point attempts against the Lakers, better than Howard managed over the course of the season (4.9 percent). Bynum anchored an L.A. defense that played as well as any team in the league during the second half.
Player TS% Usg DR% Blk% FTA% TO%
Bynum post-AS .634 .154 .294 .058 .178 .138
Howard .616 .274 .306 .049 .234 .162
There remains a significant gap between Bynum and Howard at the offensive end of the floor. By honing his post moves, Howard has become a go-to scorer capable of using more than a quarter of Orlando's possessions. In a Lakers offense with multiple other options, Bynum's usage rate has never been higher than 20.8 percent. In the second half of last season, Bynum actually got fewer shot attempts on a per-minute basis as he focused his efforts on the defensive end of the floor.
The upside is that Bynum is still just 23 and has room to grow as a post-up weapon. His high shooting percentage and solid turnover rate suggest that he might be capable of doing more if he isn't competing with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for touches in the paint. There would be some growing pains along the way, but the Magic could plug Bynum in for Howard without having to substantially overhaul the offense.
The most notable change might be running fewer pick-and-rolls for Bynum, who is not as effective rolling to the basket as Howard. Last season, Howard led the league by scoring 1.43 points per possession as a roll man, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Bynum averaged 1.19 points per pick-and-roll.
This leaves one key area where Bynum cannot compare to Howard. In his entire NBA career, Howard has missed fewer games (seven) than Bynum has in any of the past four seasons. Bynum's spotty track record of staying on the floor would make dealing for him a major risk. At his best, however, Bynum has showed Howard-like potential. That's something no other player in the league can claim. As a result, the best possible Howard trade for the Magic would be one built around Bynum.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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