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With summer trade unlikely, Howard's rift with Magic can only widen

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Dwight Howard intends to leave Orlando, but who knows when that will happen? (Getty Images)  
Dwight Howard intends to leave Orlando, but who knows when that will happen? (Getty Images)  

It's almost time to flip the calendar to August, a month of hibernation in the NBA, and Dwight Howard is still a member of the Orlando Magic. If you're all wondering how that could possibly be, you're not alone.

Howard himself is wondering the very same thing.

In fact, in a meeting Wednesday with Magic officials, Howard asked point-blank why he hasn't been traded yet and made it clear he has signed his last contract of any kind in Orlando, a person familiar with the meeting told CBSSports.com.

While the rest of the league's offseason activity is gliding gently to a halt, the Howard affair only continues to escalate. The latest boiling point was reached after word spread through the league in recent days the Magic were strongly considering holding onto Howard for the entire 2012-13 season and taking their chances with him in free agency next summer if they couldn't get the kind of blockbuster assets they were seeking.

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That chess move would make the utmost sense, considering the Magic are the only team that would be in a position to provide Howard with a five-year deal totaling approximately $100 million as an unrestricted free agent next summer. The only flaw in the plan was expressed by Howard and his camp in the meeting Wednesday: If they don't trade him between now and the February trade deadline, he'll take a four-year deal to leave Orlando rather than a five-year deal to stay.

"Dwight was direct and clear that he has no intention of signing another contract or an extension with the Magic," the person familiar with the meeting said. "He values his choice more."

As flawed as the Magic's strategy might be -- waiting Howard out in the hopes he will cave, the way he did when he signed away his right to become a free agent at the March 15 trade deadline -- Howard's position has its drawbacks, as well. First of all, the meeting Wednesday wouldn't have been necessary if Howard hadn't waived the early termination option in his contract, thus relinquishing his right to become a free agent this summer -- and with it, his leverage.

Also, once the Nets gave up on acquiring Howard this summer and re-signed center Brook Lopez, Howard's desired destination was removed as a potential trade partner until at least Jan. 15, when Lopez becomes trade-eligible again. More to the point, the Nets with their current payroll would be above the so-called luxury-tax apron next summer, and thus forbidden to acquire Howard in a sign-and-trade under the new collective bargaining agreement.

The Lakers, who used the Lamar Odom trade exception that could've absorbed the contracts of Jason Richardson and Chris Duhon in a Howard trade to acquire Steve Nash, are in the same boat -- bereft of cap room to sign Howard next summer and forbidden to receive him in a sign-and-trade. That leaves only one team from Howard's original three-team list that would be in position to sign him outright next summer or receive him in a sign-and-trade: the Dallas Mavericks, who as noted here might not have been as dumb as everyone thought they were as they entered the new labor agreement with such a cautious strategy.

If Howard isn't traded -- and if he's so determined to leave Orlando that he would forgo a year of income at $25 million to do it -- then he would have to be content with accepting a four-year deal with 4.5 percent raises when he becomes a free agent. The Magic, or another team if he were traded, would be able to deliver a five-year deal with 7.5 percent annual increases. That's Orlando's trump card in this game of chicken. That, and their right to call Howard's bluff that after all these months of pushing for Brooklyn, he would suddenly use Dallas as a credible threat to get what he really wants.

So the stare down begins. If it's not even August -- seven months before the trade deadline -- and Howard already has begun setting things aflame, there's no telling how much uglier it gets from here.

The meeting Wednesday was attended by Howard, his agent, Dan Fegan, and business manager Kevin Samples, in addition to Magic GM Rob Hennigan and assistant GM Scott Perry. It got heated at times, as Howard directly challenged Orlando's new front office as to why he hasn't been traded yet. As for indications that Howard had been given assurances from the ownership level he would be gone by now, Orlando management has rejected them -- referring to Howard's own words when he voluntarily waived his right to become a free agent at the March trade deadline.

"I'm loyal," Howard said at the time. "That's just who I am."

Hennigan, hired only days before the draft, was unimpressed by the best offer he has received so far in a proposed deal that would've sent Howard to his desired destination, Brooklyn, with the Magic receiving Lopez and as many as five first-round picks while significantly trimming future payroll. And here's the point: Perhaps the biggest reason Howard remains a member of the Magic is that the Nets deal -- and others -- will be back on the table in February. From Orlando's perspective, what's the rush?

If Howard really is willing to go to Dallas for less money next summer, then Hennigan would be choosing to let him walk rather than take assets he doesn't want for the post-Dwight rebuilding. That's a calculated risk, and one that keeps Howard's desired trade destination, Brooklyn, very much in the game come January. But this collision of power plays also could re-ignite talks that would send Howard to the Lakers before the start of the season, if only Orlando could find the necessary cap relief, draft picks and young players from a third team. Such talks involving the Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled to gain momentum, given the premium the Magic are placing on Howard's value.

"The market has dried up," said one person briefed on the Howard trade talks.

The kind of blockbuster deal Orlando is seeking -- similar to the haul of assets Denver received for Carmelo Anthony in February 2011 -- has thus far been unattainable. On one hand, you can't blame the Magic for setting the price high, since they're selling not only an asset -- the best center in the game -- but also the leverage of a five-year deal that his new team could offer next summer. The Magic are understandably reluctant to surrender that leverage, and they know full well the same deals will be available in February. Their strategy could be made or broken depending on whether Howard is bluffing when he says he'll take a shorter deal and less money to leave if he doesn't get his way. That's something none of his contemporaries have done, including the one he seeks to play with in Brooklyn, Deron Williams.

Howard's situation is much different, which is why the Magic have been unable to find a Melo-like trade package for him. First, Anthony was able to get his full boat of money in an extend-and-trade deal to the Knicks, a transaction that has been severely curtailed in the new CBA. Also, the Nuggets knew that if they didn't trade Anthony where he wanted to go, he would simply walk there as a free agent after the season since the Knicks would've had cap space to sign him. The Nets and Lakers, as noted, will not be able to get Howard without the Magic's help.

The Mavs will. Thus, the Howard saga continues twisting and turning at an excruciating pace for this time of year, when the majority of NBA business should be done.

When it comes to Howard's long, painful goodbye to Orlando, the end is nowhere in sight.


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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