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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Blockbuster deal a bigger deal for Magic's Howard

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On the eve of the biggest free-agent extravaganza in nearly two decades, word leaked out that a certain mammoth free-agent-to-be already was plotting his own future.

Dwight Howard wouldn't be in LeBron James' boat for two more years, but the Magic big man was working behind the scenes to make sure he wouldn't be the last superstar standing when the Redeem Team generation finished its multi-billion-dollar game of musical chairs.

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Howard, according to sources, asked Orlando management in the days leading up to July 1, 2010, to make a pre-emptive strike. While LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were plotting the formation of their own Dream Team, Howard was formulating a co-star wish list. Chris Paul, restlessly enduring small-market life in New Orleans, was right at the top. Free-agent power forward Carlos Boozer was No. 2.

Neither situation materialized, and Howard seemed oddly accepting of the Magic's flaws during the season's first few weeks. The struggles of Miami's Supertwins plus Chris Bosh only masked what Howard privately conceded: Orlando didn't have enough to compete with the Heat or Celtics in the East.

That reality came crashing down on Magic GM Otis Smith during a recent stretch that saw Orlando perform its best impersonation of a futile $94 million team, losing five of six and sending into motion plans that Smith suspected all along would be necessary on some level.

Those plans came together in sweeping fashion Saturday when Orlando completed two deals that thoroughly shook up its roster and shuffled the power struggle in the Eastern Conference. Out are Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus. In are Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas and Earl Clark.

Up is the ante. The Magic, for better or worse, are all in now in the race for supremacy in what will become known as the season before labor Armageddon in the NBA.

Dwight Howard now has the help he surely must have been craving. But will it be enough to convince him to stay in Orlando? (US Presswire)  
Dwight Howard now has the help he surely must have been craving. But will it be enough to convince him to stay in Orlando? (US Presswire)  
"There's a LeBron comparison here," said a connected authority on NBA player movement. "You've got to put talent around these guys, these superstars, so they can win. I think if they didn't make a move like this, I don't think they would've been able to keep Dwight. Does this mean they keep him? Not for sure. But if this makes them a championship caliber team, the chances go up."

All that will be sorted out in the coming months as coach Stan Van Gundy assesses how best to deploy the talents and challenges bestowed upon him by these bold moves. However it works out, Smith deserves kudos for being proactive, realizing the limitations of the roster as it was constructed, and taking a swing at it. He took a huge but necessary risk.

If Arenas can resurrect his career and re-emerge as a potent perimeter threat, if Turkoglu can erase the past year-plus of his career and turn back the clock to 2008-09, and if Richardson can be the sniper that Lewis once was -- only better -- then the Magic will be a handful for Boston or Miami by springtime. Know this about such dramatic changes: Imperfect pieces like Turkoglu and Arenas will be elevated simply by standing on the same court, and in the same uniform, as Howard.

And if it doesn't work? Then Howard, a colossal talent who is privately envious of the Celtics' Hall of Fame core and the free-agent coup pulled off by James and Wade, will have one giant foot out the door.

Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, took a more diplomatic approach in praising the Magic for the moves.

"It's no secret that Dwight Howard is about winning a championship," Fegan told CBSSports.com. "A number of teams in the East have significantly upgraded their talent level. In order to compete, the trades consummated [Saturday] are important and represent a significant upgrade in talent."

Do the bold moves guarantee anything? Other than the fact that the Magic are trying to keep their star happy and on a championship level, no. There are no guarantees. If the experiment blows up, as the Cleveland concoction of Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison famously imploded, then Howard simply will be one step closer to being Carmelo Anthony.

After the anticipated lockout ends, Howard will be entering the final year of his contract followed by an early-termination option for 2012-13. He would be set to join another epic free-agent class, which also could include Paul, Deron Williams, and Derrick Rose. Depending on what the league's free-agent rules and payroll structure will be, Howard could have substantial leverage to force a trade during the season-and-a-half leading up to the 2012 trade deadline.

People with knowledge of Howard's thinking said the superstar is on board with Orlando's moves, with one saying he's "a big fan" of the changes. But as he grew restless over the summer about the developments in South Florida, and as the Magic were exposed in recent weeks, Howard privately already was beginning to weigh his options. Like the list of stars he wanted to join him in Orlando, he was forming another list: potential suitors for him. Two teams were on it, according to sources: the Knicks and Lakers.

Howard dreams as big as he is.

If things don't work out in Orlando, Kobe Bryant could very well be pursuing his seventh championship next season -- the one that would push him past Michael Jordan and onto a pedestal by himself in modern basketball immortality. With constant uncertainty about Andrew Bynum's knees, Howard would be in a position to orchestrate a union with Bryant that would stir memories of the Kobe-and-Shaq days -- only, perhaps, more scary.

Or, if the Knicks were able to become the patient beneficiaries of a cosmic breakup in Denver by securing Carmelo Anthony through a trade or free agency, Howard might seek to swoop in and bring his massive physique to basketball's biggest stage. The Big Three of Howard, Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire would make Miami's trinity seem irrelevant.

For now, Howard gets a new supporting cast and a real chance to chase down the original Big Three in Boston and Pat Riley's imposing creation in South Beach. If it works, there will be no need for Howard to bring his talents anywhere else. But the stakes are higher than Howard can jump. What happened Saturday in Orlando is all the proof you need of that.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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