The Dwight Howard debacle took its most absurd turn Tuesday night, when the All-Star center said he wants to stay with the Magic through the end of the season rather than be traded by Thursday's deadline.
It's the ultimate tease for Magic officials, an 11th-hour play that might wind up sparking the scorn and disdain from the team's fans that Howard wants to badly avoid.
"I feel they have to roll the dice," Howard told reporters after the Magic's 104-98 overtime win against the Heat. "It might be tough, but I feel we've got a great opportunity. But they've got to roll it."
If the Magic take Howard's advice and he doesn't re-sign with them as a free agent this summer, he'll be every bit the villain that LeBron James was in Cleveland and far worse than Shaquille O'Neal when it comes to his local legend. And while Magic owner Rich DeVos, CEO Alex Martins and general manager Otis Smith are ultimately responsible for picking a path here, they will have passed on the opportunity to get something in return for Howard, in part, because he withdrew the trade request that was first issued in early December. Meanwhile, Howard will have ensured that his future team didn't gut its roster in order to land him via trade.
In other words, Howard wins big and Magic fans lose badly.
Only Howard knows what percentage of this is false hope, if there's even a small part of him still considering staying. Yet because this situation is so impossible to handicap, with the dynamics and endless factors far more complicated than last season's Melo Drama in Denver, there's simply no way for the Magic to know how they should proceed here.
While sources continue to maintain that the Nets are far and away Howard's preferred team, the notion that he's already decided to join them this summer doesn't compute because it's not just about him. Nets point guard Deron Williams has spent much of the season telling people close to him how interested he is in signing with Dallas, where owner Mark Cuban cleared his championship deck for the purpose of landing the likes of Williams and Howard.
Unless Williams has informed Howard that he's re-signing with the Nets, the idea of Howard flying solo to Brooklyn seems far-fetched (though not impossible). And because Howard and Williams have different agents, there's less synergy when it comes to getting both players' camps on the same agenda as it pertains to their respective futures.
As for the notion of Howard playing out the final option year on his contract (worth $19.5 million) next season, that remains unlikely as well. It's worth noting, though, that Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, is not on the books for his current contract and thus won't be paid unless he signs a new one. Pressure and problematic turns all around.
"My sense is that he wants to be a free agent," one source close to the process said.
Before Howard made his comments on Tuesday night, sources said the Magic would likely wait until Thursday to decide whether to "roll the dice" or accept one of the many proposals that has come their way. The Nets, one source said, need to "put their best foot forward -- and not their fake best foot," but they are hardly alone in this bidding war.
Sources say the Lakers and even the Knicks are among the teams who have engaged with the Magic in recent days. Howard has told close friends that he doesn't want to play for the Lakers, but deals have been discussed between the two teams with the shared hope that he would change his stance.
While Golden State's trade for Milwaukee center Andrew Bogut on Tuesday night took them out of the running for Howard in what would have been a "rental" situation, Houston remains willing to trade for Howard without any assurances that he will re-sign.
If any of those deals are good enough to be done, the time will come yet again for Howard to speak. He is the most unpredictable of personalities, an indecisive young man who may live to regret things he has already said. Yet try as he might, he will not be having the final say this week.
The Knicks' inquiries regarding Howard were merely exploratory, with sources saying that one call came weeks ago and the latest came Monday night. Nonetheless, New York isn't expected to be active on the trade front before the deadline.
It's been less than a month since the Knicks were the best story in the NBA, with the Jeremy Lin craze going global and New York winning seven straight games to return to .500 (15-15). But with the Knicks having lost eight of 10 games since Carmelo Anthony returned to the lineup, change of a different kind could be coming in a number of forms.
Some sources close to the situation see a need for a coaching change, as Mike D'Antoni -- who is in the final year of his contract -- is seen by some as too soft for this group of talent. Others say the onus is on Anthony to change his ways, to go the way of Boston's Paul Pierce when it comes to transforming his game to fit those around him.
When the Celtics landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, Pierce sacrificed some of his scoring for the greater good of the team and became a more complementary player than he had in years past. But Boston coach Doc Rivers was given a great deal of credit for convincing Pierce to evolve, and the question now becomes whether D'Antoni has the cachet or the clout to play that role with Anthony.
An ESPN.com report published Tuesday night claimed D'Antoni had lost his locker room, as an anonymous source was quoted saying "he doesn't have the respect of the team anymore." The report said it's unlikely D'Antoni would return as coach next season -- if he survived this season at all.
While retired Lakers and Bulls coach Phil Jackson has frequently been named as a possible successor to D'Antoni, sources close to retired Utah coach Jerry Sloan say he would be interested in the position. Sloan retired abruptly in February 2011, and was pursued by a number of teams during the summer before resisting the recruiting efforts. In an interview with SI.com in early January, he said he was considering a return.
"I think if the right situation came along, whatever that is," he said. "I don't know what the right situation is. We'll have to wait and see, I guess.
"[Returning to coaching] is a decision where, if somebody talked to me, I'd review the situation like anybody else and take it from there."
The uncertain future of third-year point guard Brandon Jennings was a subplot to Tuesday's deal between Milwaukee and Golden State, but it appears the Bucks point guard will be staying put past the trade deadline.
Before Milwaukee decided to pair Jennings with Warriors guard Monta Ellis, a front-office source said the Bucks were telling teams that they had a deal for Jennings that was to their liking and were strongly considering trading him. On Monday, however, the Bucks told Jennings' representatives that he remained part of the team's future plans.
One team that had serious interest in Jennings -- and will likely be disappointed to hear that news, according to sources -- is the Hornets. New Orleans still plans to re-sign shooting guard Eric Gordon this summer, when he will be a restricted free agent, and would love to pair him with Jennings, but the team was rebuffed in its attempts to land him.
Not long after the news broke of the Warriors-Bucks trade, the question of whether any of the involved players might be moved again before the deadline was almost immediately raised.
Specifically, sources say the Warriors are certainly looking at the possibility of trading Stephen Jackson and his contract that runs through next season ($10 million in 2012-13). But the timing involved will be problematic for a subsequent move to be done because of the league rules in play. Players have up to 48 hours to report to their new team and pass a physical before a deal is official, meaning Bogut, Ellis, Jackson, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown would need to arrive in their respective cities earlier than expected and rush through the physicals in order to aid the effort. It's not impossible, but it certainly seems improbable.
While it remains unknown whether Sacramento has shown any willingness to trade former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, two sources said Golden State made repeated inquiries about him recently and was prepared to discuss a deal involving Ellis. Evans' former agent just so happens to be Bob Myers, who was hired as the Warriors' assistant general manager in mid-April.
Evans is eligible for an extension this summer but it appears unlikely that one will be offered to the third-year player unless he shows major improvement. The Kings can simply wait until the summer of 2014 to gauge the market, as he will be a restricted free agent and they can match any offer from other teams.