Hope remains for the Brooklyn Nets in their pursuit of Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard.
A source with knowledge of the trade talks with the Magic said Thursday that they continued without any major progress or regress, which was more than had been expected after the Nets' flurry of moves in recent days had appeared to take them out of the running for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. But by persuading Bosnian forward Mirza Teletovic to sign for the taxpayer mid-level exception (three years, up to about $9 million) instead of the nontaxpayer mid-level (four years, about $20 million), as was originally reported this week, Brooklyn avoided the no-exceptions hard cap of $74.3 million and thus remained in the Howard race.
So with the Nets still in play and Orlando reportedly having had recent talks with the Lakers, Houston, Atlanta and Dallas as well, the question is which team has the most appealing deal to new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan. At first glance, it would seem to be the Lakers. As I wrote in late May, Lakers center Andrew Bynum is the most valuable piece that the Magic could receive in a deal for Howard, and any trade centered on the 24-year-old All-Star would be as palatable as it might come for Orlando fans.
[Gallery: Rare photos of Dwight Howard]
But in acquiring free-agent point guard Steve Nash on Wednesday, the Lakers may have simultaneously hurt and helped their chances of landing Howard. By giving the Suns two first-round picks (2013 and 2015) and two second-round picks (2013 and 2014), they dealt the sort of assets that interest Hennigan, whose roots with the Oklahoma City Thunder taught him the value of building through the draft. The source said the Magic have made it clear that they want multiple first-round picks in any deal for Howard, even if they're late first-round picks like the Lakers' are almost sure to be.
The flip side is that while nabbing Nash cost the Lakers pivotal picks, adding him may have a ripple effect on the other relevant component to the Howard equation: his willingness to stay beyond next season. Howard, who requested a trade to the Nets last week and said he'd re-sign with only one team that dealt for him (believed to be Brooklyn), is known to have been wary of the notion of teaming up with Bryant. The 33-year-old future Hall of Famer remains one of the most ball-dominant and strong-headed players in the game, but Nash is the kind of selfless point guard who could tweak the style of play and team dynamic enough to make Laker Land more amenable to Howard. That is, of course, if the Lakers are still eager to make the move at all.
[Zach Lowe: Nash's impact on the Lakers]
Howard is still recovering from surgery to repair a herniated disk in late April, and Lakers officials are reportedly concerned about whether he would be ready for the start of next season. They wouldn't be eager to take on additional salary like the Magic want teams to do, either, with one of the possibilities involving Orlando's Jason Richardson (three years, $18.6 million left on his contract, including a player option in the third season) trading places with the Lakers' Metta World Peace deal (two years $15 million remaining, including a player option in the second season). All of which would seem to increase the Nets' odds of winning the Howard sweepstakes.
The Nets' likely package would send several draft picks, center Brook Lopez, shooting guard MarShon Brooks and power forward Kris Humphries to Orlando, though numerous reports have said a third team is needed to take Humphries in a sign-and-trade deal because the Magic have no interest in the free agent. The core of Howard, point guard Deron Williams, shooting guard Joe Johnson and small forward Gerald Wallace would then begin its attempt to unseat Miami as the Eastern Conference's newest power, and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov would have Teletovic to thank for allowing him the freedom to take his payroll deep into the increasingly punitive luxury tax.
A source with knowledge of the discussions between the Nets and Magic said one of two scenarios appears likely now: either there's a deal "within the next week" in which Howard heads for Brooklyn, or the talks are tabled until after Dec. 15. Players who were signed as free agents this summer can be included in deals at that point, expanding the possibilities and proposals leading up to the February trade deadline. Whether the Magic could stomach going nearly two months into the season with this drama defining their team yet again is another story altogether.
Hope remains, then, for the Nets and for Howard.