Despite strong overtures from the New Jersey Nets, the Orlando Magic informed teams Wednesday they are not ready to seriously engage in trade discussions for All-Star center Dwight Howard, league sources told CBSSports.com.
The Nets were "pushing hard" over the past 48 hours and accelerated the talks to the point where teams were being recruited to serve as a third or fourth team to provide Orlando with the kind of assets it would find acceptable if there was no other option but to trade Howard. However, a person with knowledge of the situation said Wednesday, "The Magic are in no rush to do anything." The team's top priority remains to find a way to keep Howard in Orlando.
League sources confirmed that talks between the Nets and Magic gained momentum in recent days and that New Jersey was working on a complicated set of scenarios to land Howard that could involve one or two other teams. But the biggest hurdle was uncertainty over whether the Magic are ready to give up on trying to persuade Howard to stay in Orlando.
A person familiar with the discussions described them as "very complicated," and two other people confirmed that one scenario would have looped in the Trail Blazers as a third team to provide swingman Gerald Wallace as a second primary piece along with Nets center Brook Lopez in a package for Howard. As part of the deal, New Jersey also would have taken back Hedo Turkoglu and the $34 million left on his contract.
But a league source told CBSSports.com Wednesday that the scenario as currently constructed with Wallace joining Lopez in Orlando as the primary pieces was not enough to persuade the Magic to move forward with the deal.
"If people think things are imminent, then they're being led down the wrong path," the person said.
An executive within the league who is familiar with Orlando's situation said the expectation remains that the Magic will once again revisit trade scenarios for Howard, but not until after All-Star weekend -- which is being held in Orlando Feb. 24-26. The trade deadline during this shortened 66-game season will be March 15.
The Magic are determined to avoid another Shaq scenario -- when Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando as a free agent in 1996 and the team got nothing in return. If the only option is to trade Howard, sources said the team will be take its time to find the right deal. GM Otis Smith will not, and has not, limited himself to exploring deals with the three teams Howard has signaled he's willing to sign a long-term deal with -- the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks, sources said.
Among the factors fueling the Nets' heightened pursuit of Howard was the re-emergence of the Lakers in the Chris Paul trade discussions Tuesday, which led rival executives to believe that the Lakers were more focused on landing Paul than Howard. But the Los Angeles Times reported that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak was engaged in conversations about both superstars, and people with direct knowledge of Howard's strategy have had the Lakers at the top of his wish list since at least February 2010. The Nets, who are moving to a new arena in Brookyn in 2012, became more attractive when the team acquired All-Star point guard Deron Williams this past February.
Another factor that ramped up the Nets-Magic talks was free-agent big man Nene's decision to stay in Denver with a five-year, $67 million contract. Nene was atop the Nets' free-agent wish list, but their primary objective since acquiring Williams has been to land Howard -- either in a trade or as a free agent next summer.
The Mavericks, the third team on Howard's list of preferred trade destinations, have continued to dutifully clear 2012 cap space in an effort that is geared toward a possible run at Howard if he gets to free agency or Williams, who went to high school in the Dallas area, if he is not persuaded to stay with the Nets after he opts out of his contract and becomes a free agent on July 1.
Last week, the Magic gave Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, permission to speak with the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks about a possible trade. But sources said the team has no intention of limiting its options to those teams if and when it decides that there's no other choice but to trade Howard. As long as the team can endure the media circus, the Magic can afford to wait for a better deal -- with the hope, sources said, that adding another piece to the team in the meantime and starting the season on a winning note between the Christmas opener and the All-Star break would help persuade Howard to stay.
In fact, although Howard complained last week about the lack of input he'd been given in personnel decisions, the facts do not agree. While Howard disagreed with the decision to waive Gilbert Arenas with the amnesty provision, Arenas wouldn't have been in Orlando to begin with if not for Howard, who is close to him. The move didn't work out, and the organization had no choice but to take advantage of the amnesty clause, which allows it to wipe Arenas' massive contract off the cap and tax and use the flexibility gained to improve the team.
A league source said Howard also requested that Smith acquire Glen "Big Baby" Davis from the Celtics, which he did in recent days in a trade for Brandon Bass.
"He's been as involved as any superstar on any team," the league source said.
The Magic also have to address changes in the front office, with former team president Alex Martins suddenly taking over as CEO for Bob Vander Weide. How the new hierarchy is handled could have an impact on the timing and terms of any Howard trade, sources said. But while the Magic can afford to be patient, perhaps all the way to the March 15 trade deadline, the team can't play chicken with Howard for too long. Under provisions of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Magic would not be able to hold out for the worst-case scenario of a sign-and-trade because such a maneuver no longer provides a free agent with maximum length and dollars when he leaves his team.
If Orlando waited Howard out through the season and called his bluff that he wouldn't choose, say, a four-year, $76 million free-agent deal with the Nets over the five-year, $100 million the Magic could offer, they would have no sign-and-trade recourse if that's what Howard decided to do. The stakes also are exceedingly high for the Nets, who would face losing Williams under similar circumstances.