Magic center Dwight Howard recently stated his desire to stay in Orlando.
There's no other place I'd rather be besides Orlando, he said. As of right now, that's my home. I just want to stay in Orlando as long as I can.
Howard's comments are comforting for the Magic organization, and fanbase.
However, his actions are not.
On Monday, Howard said he would definitely become a free agent rather than sign an extension, and left open the possibility he would leave Orlando if the team does not win the NBA Championship next season.
With Howard wanting to win a ring, and the Magic likely unable to add the players to make them a contender given the weak free agent market and their lack of quality trade bait, it might mean the five-time NBA All-Star's days are numbered in central Florida.
Should Orlando manage a way to just become Eastern Conference Champions, that would probably be enough for the team to retain Howard, but judging by the talent on other rosters, that seems rather implausible.
The Heat should be just as strong next season as they are now, if not stronger. The Bulls have a 22-year-old MVP and plenty of other young talent around Derrick Rose. Boston, packed with veterans, probably have another year to go with their current roster to make another run. Then there are up-and-coming teams like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Indiana who are showing signs of improvement.
Unless the Magic can lure an elite player to join Howard, the team will be hard-pressed to hold onto him. Orlando actually is a better destination to acquire an elite player than many other franchises. The state is warm, state taxes are low, the team is often in the playoffs, and whoever they get will be teaming up with Howard.
But it may take more than one high-profile player to propel the Magic into the class of Chicago and Miami, and that's bad news for Orlando.
Near the NBA trade deadline, there was talk of swapping Howard for the Lakers' Andrew Bynum. That deal seemed rather implausible at the time, and there were no reports of serious discussions between the two teams.
What held up discussion is Jim Buss. The son of Lakers' owner Jerry Buss, Jim has favored Bynum in all trade talks involving the young center.
But with Kobe Bryant desperate for another ring to tie Michael Jordan's six rings, it's possible that Bryant might push for the Howard-Bynum swap. Though Bryant and Bynum are on good terms, Bryant was once caught on a camera phone suggesting the Lakers trade Bynum, and likely knows the benefit of having a great center as opposed to a very good one.
The Magic will undoubtedly want more than just Bynum. After famously losing Shaquille O'Neal to free agency to the Lakers, Orlando will want to be heavily compensated for Howard, and that may mean the Lakers taking on Gilbert Arenas's over-priced contract, or at least draft picks.
The Lakers may not budge. They like Bynum, and his contract is not a major burden.
However, Bynum has been injury prone, will no longer have the teaching services of legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and has at times shown a lack of maturity in recent years. Howard would be an upgrade at center for Los Angeles, even though Bynum is a more classic-style center.
However, with the introduction of a new head coach, it might be time for the Lakers to make major changes, and for Jim Buss to accept that Bynum is tradeable.
Adding Bynum might be an ideal situation for Orlando. As much as Howard is coveted by the organization, they have only been to one NBA Finals with him, and Bynum is one of the best centers in the NBA at only 23 years old. The Magic might consider starting fresh, as other teams in the East are reloading, and Bynum and draft picks might be an excellent option.
Another destination for Howard could be the New Jersey Nets. Looking to move to a new arena in Brooklyn, and with an owner with deep pockets, it's possible the Nets could swing a deal to land Howard.
The main bargaining chip would be Brook Lopez. Like Bynum, Lopez is a burgeoning young center, and has even less bloated contract. On top of that, Lopez has some good offensive skills, and is a tough competitor.
Adding Lopez would perhaps open the doors for the Magic to test the free agent market, where they would be able to build some very good pieces around their center in 2012 with the added salary cap space.The Nets would have to give up more than Lopez, and have plenty of decent players to strengthen Orlando's depth.
It's possible that the Nets would consider dealing Deron Williams, should they not be able to extend his contract. Perhaps lost in the shuffle of Rose and Chris Paul, Williams remains among the best point guards in the NBA.
Again, this might be a good deal for both parties. Either a deal involving Lopez or a deal involving Williams is probably not enough for Howard, but the Magic face losing their star player for nothing. That would be catastrophic, and the options from the Lakers and Nets may actually make the Magic better in the long run.
In the mean time, expect Magic general manager Otis Smith to be hitting the phones and trying to make trades to strengthen the roster in an effort to keep Howard.
Whatever additions Smith can add may not be enough. The East is strong and getting stronger, and that means the chances of Howard bolting are growing.
It will be up to Smith to make amends for the terrible trade that brought Arenas to the team, and find a lot of compensation for Howard, because trading their star center is probably the best option.