The Orlando Magic and Dwight Howard must make momentous choices about their futures in the weeks ahead. Those decisions, whatever they turn out to be, could affect Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum.
That is what makes Friday's Magic-Lakers matchup at Amway Center so intriguing. The Magic's current center could be facing the Magic's center of the future.
To understand how Bynum compares to Howard, the Orlando Sentinel asked an executive for an NBA team, ESPN analyst Jon Barry and NBA TV analyst Dennis Scott to evaluate Bynum. Their conclusions are similar: Although Bynum is a very good player who is improving, he simply is not on Howard's level.
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"If you took Bynum and put him on the Orlando Magic, they're not 10-4 right now," Barry said. "There's just no way. I don't see him as being a guy that carries a team. He's not a franchise player. Dwight Howard is a franchise player."
This is the dilemma the Magic face. Howard finished as the runner-up in last season's MVP voting, and it will be enormously difficult for Orlando to receive equal value if the franchise decides it must trade him before the March 15 trade deadline.
Howard has identified the Lakers, the Dallas Mavericks and the New Jersey Nets as his preferred trade destinations. On those three teams, Bynum is the available player with the highest long-term upside. He is a talented, 24-year-old center in a league that lacks quality centers.
Bynum, 24, has posted the best numbers of his career so far this season.
He entered the Lakers' game Thursday night against the Miami Heat averaging 16.5 points and 13.9 rebounds per game. Those would be career highs if he can keep it up.
"I see a talented 7-footer that has improved every year he's been in the league," said the executive, who does not work for the Magic or the Lakers and was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss another team's player publicly.
"Besides size, first and foremost, he has a good touch inside. His footwork is excellent for a big man. He doesn't play soft. He can protect the basket. He rebounds his area very well."
Magic officials say nothing has changed regarding Howard's long-term future. The team still wants to re-sign him for the long term, but the trade request Howard made in December still stands.
If Howard's mind does not change between now and the trade deadline, the Magic would take an enormous gamble if they hold onto him past March 15. Howard could opt out of the final year of his deal in July, become a free agent and sign somewhere else, leaving the Magic with no compensation as they lose one of the best players in the game.
If the Magic decide they must trade Howard, they could do much worse than Bynum, and the Magic likely would receive other assets — perhaps from a third or fourth team — and divest themselves of Hedo Turkoglu's contract.
Still, Bynum has a major red flag: He is injury-prone. Since the 2007-08 season, he has missed 122 regular-season games because of various injuries or ailments. Howard, on the other hand, has missed only five games because of injuries or illnesses.
"The biggest problem or question with Bynum over his career is, 'Can he stay healthy?' " Scott said. "That is the concern. When he's healthy, the Lakers can win an NBA title. When he's not healthy, it's hard for them to win."
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