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Postups: Free-agent frenzy, or lack thereof, all hangs on Howard

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The uncertainty surrounding Howard and the Magic is holding up other deals. (US Presswire)  
The uncertainty surrounding Howard and the Magic is holding up other deals. (US Presswire)  

With seven days to go before the trade deadline, either this is the calm before the storm or there simply won't be a storm this year. NBA team executives are torn over what kind of frenzy the March 15 deadline will bring.

"It's all over the map," said one team executive who believes that all but the best of the best -- the Bulls, the Heat and the Thunder -- will seriously pursue trades, but perhaps only six or fewer teams actually will make one.

The obvious impediment to significant deals getting done is the uncertainty over Orlando's decision with Dwight Howard. Teams that are involved in, or on the periphery of the Howard sweepstakes, are reluctant to get involved in other deals until the Magic decide whether they're trading their franchise center in the next seven days or not.

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The stalemate between Howard (who has not committed to staying in Orlando beyond this season), and the Magic (who are insisting on trying to hold onto him) has paralyzed the teams on Howard's list of preferred destinations (the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks) while also preventing other dominoes from tumbling.

The other factors are not Howard-related. For one, a significant number of teams are reluctant to take on future salary in anticipation of a more punitive luxury-tax system on the horizon. Even the perennially money-printing Lakers, with their gazillion-dollar regional TV deal, are said to be hesitant to take on money -- even if it means placating Kobe Bryant and helping him win his sixth championship.

For teams on the cusp of playoff contention, the motivation to roll the dice and acquire a high-priced veteran at the deadline is diminished by a well-stocked draft approaching in June. Also, the presence of the amnesty clause has placed a significant chilling effect on the perennial instinct of non-playoff teams to unload bad contracts. Those that haven't used their get-out-of-jail-free card yet can look forward to erasing an undesirable contract via amnesty in the offseason.

"Teams are really reluctant to do anything that's going to cost them anything beyond this year," one executive said.

So as the Dwight turns, along with other factors, this week's Postups focus on trade talk around the league based on conversations with team executives, agents and others in the know:

 The Celtics are prepared to entertain offers for Paul Pierce, whose subtraction from the Boston core would be the most advantageous to the post-Big Three rebuilding effort given his age (34) and the $32 million he's owed over the next two seasons. And for those same reasons, he'll be the most difficult of Boston's top four players to move. The Clippers, indeed, have interest in Ray Allen, but little in the way of movable salary to make a deal work. Rival executives believe Celtics president Danny Ainge would have to be blown away by an offer to move point guard Rajon Rondo.

 The Trail Blazers have been among the most active teams, seeking to move Jamal Crawford and acquire a big man -- either in the same or separate deals. The asking price for Crawford, however, includes a first-round pick in addition to Luke Ridnour (Timberwolves) or Eric Bledsoe (Clippers). Depending on what point guard the Blazers can bring back in a deal, they'd also be in a position to put Raymond Felton out of his misery. Felton's up-tempo style and Nate McMillan's deliberate offense clearly are not fitting together. "They've got to make major changes," one executive said.

 The Hawks won't find a taker for Joe Johnson and the $90 million he has coming to him over the next four years, but rival executives believe Kirk Hinrich could be on the move -- perhaps filling the gaping two-guard hole on the Clippers. That depends on the asking price, as the Clips' assets were diminished in the Chris Paul trade. Execs are torn on what strategy Atlanta ownership will pursue after the sale of the team fell through in November. With a healthy Al Horford, the Hawks almost certainly would be the third-best team in the East. But at some point down the road, a league source said, ownership may "keep Horford and try to dump the rest."

 Flush with cap space and flexibility, the Cavaliers have been actively expressing a willingness to take on money for the right assets. Cleveland already is loaded with draft picks (two first-round picks in each of the next two drafts) and has a valuable commodity in Antawn Jamison -- a veteran stretch forward with an expiring contract. The problem is, contending teams that would be the best fit for Jamison -- such as Orlando or Boston -- don't have room for his $15.1 million salary or pieces they're interested in moving to make a trade work under cap rules.

 The Rockets and Warriors continue to be open to landing Howard in a rental deal, hoping they could persuade the All-Star center to stay beyond the six-week finale to the season. Houston, whose acquisition of Pau Gasol in the ill-fated trade that would've sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, also remains in hot pursuit of the Spaniard, sources say. So are the Timberwolves, who would like to pair Gasol with Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio. The Lakers, however, are unwilling to trade Gasol unless they get a comparable All-Star in return -- preferably one who could provide the guard penetration they're so sorely lacking.

 The Bucks have fielded what one source described as an "amazing" number of inquiries about Stephen Jackson, who has clashed with coach Scott Skiles. But the offers for Jackson, owed $10.1 million next season, have included Milwaukee being asked to take on future salary or include another player or draft pick to sweeten the deal. "It's going to be hard to move him by himself," the source said.

 It's no secret that Minnesota is likely to trade Michael Beasley, with the most interested potential suitors being the Boston, the Lakers and Orlando. The Magic are pursuing multiple avenues in an attempt to improve the team in the hopes that a long playoff run could persuade Howard to stay. If Orlando holds off on trading Howard at the deadline, sources say Beasley could be a viable piece for the Nets to add as they try to upgrade their talent to make the team more attractive to Howard and Deron Williams.

 Steve Nash is said to be "pretty content" with staying with the Suns, but that's more due to his personality and "not wanting to be the bad guy" than his belief that he can finish his career on a winning note there, a person connected to the point guard said. "He'd like to go and win," the person said, "but he's not prepared to play the Carmelo [Anthony] card." It is believed that the Suns would respectfully try to honor a trade request if Nash made one, but it's not his style to ask out and he feels tremendous loyalty toward the organization.

 Teams are slowly beginning to take advantage of a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement allowing veteran players to be sent to the D-League with the union's consent. Besides Lamar Odom's ill-fated assignment to the Texas Legends, which ended before Odom played a game, the Clippers (Eric Bledsoe to Bakersfield), Spurs (Gary Neal to Austin) and Mavs (Yi Jianlian to Texas) have used the new provision for injury rehab. As long as teams don't use it as a punitive measure, the players and NBA teams benefit because the player gets to regain his health and knock off rust in an environment where the affiliate team's offensive and defensive systems are comparable. In addition, it helps the D-League generate interest and sell tickets for games involving known NBA veterans. Among currently injured players, Manu Ginobili (Spurs) and Brook Lopez (Nets) could benefit from a D-League stint in the coming weeks. All of this is a small step, but an important one toward NBA teams using the D-League as a legitimate minor league feeder system instead of a separate entity.


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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