FA Howard no lock for Lakers, to explore options; interest in Rockets

With the Lakers hoping for a swift decision from Dwight Howard on his free agency this summer, the All-Star center has given no indication he will rush the process and has privately indicated he plans to give strong consideration to multiple teams, league sources told CBSSports.com.

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Though Howard is adamant his free agency not be marred by the circus-like environment that surrounded his departure from Orlando last summer, word already has spread to multiple levels of his support staff that Howard re-signing with the Lakers is far from a done deal.

With six weeks to go before Howard becomes an unrestricted free agent, the team that is said to intrigue him the most is the Houston Rockets, according to multiple people briefed on internal conversations surrounding Howard's free-agent decision. The Rockets have a young star, James Harden, who has proved himself worthy of playing the leading role for the franchise; a budding 3-point shooting threat in Chandler Parsons; a defensive-minded coach in Kevin McHale; and Omer Asik, the kind of 7-footer Howard is believed to want next to him in the frontcourt.

The Rockets are a couple of minor moves away from having room to sign Howard; they have a team option on Francisco Garcia's $6.4 million and Carlos Delfino's $3 million is fully non-guaranteed, for example. If they chose to or needed to make a trade to create room, they have numerous attractive young players on tradable contracts, such as 2012 No. 5 pick Thomas Robinson. Such assets could be moved to a team or teams under the cap to create room or packaged in a possible sign-and-trade with LA -- if the Lakers became convinced Howard would leave and they'd receive nothing in return.

The Mavericks represent another franchise that intrigues Howard, and Dallas is a minor transaction or two away from having enough room to sign Howard outright as an unrestricted free agent. Howard plans to explore all such options, and a person briefed on his plans told CBSSports.com that there are "several" teams the free-agent center is "going to take a hard look at."

The clear advantage for the Lakers in their effort to re-sign Howard is the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which allows LA to give Howard a five-year deal with annual increases based on 7.5 percent of his first-year salary in a new deal -- which will be in excess of $20 million. Another team with cap room to sign Howard could only give him a four-year deal with 4.5 percent annual increases -- the same arrangement Howard would be limited to if he agreed to leave via a sign-and-trade.

But Howard is only 27, and barring a career-ending injury, he'll clearly get one more max deal after this one. A four-year deal with an opt-out after three years, for example, would in some ways be preferable to Howard because he'd hit the open market again at age 30 and could then secure his five-year max deal. Also, by signing with a team in Texas -- where the Rockets and Mavs obviously reside -- Howard would reap substantial savings by paying no state income tax. According to some early estimates, Howard's tax savings in Texas could approach $10 million over four years.

Though league sources acknowledge it would be difficult for Howard to leave LA and its off-court branding opportunities, Howard would find himself in somewhat of a dead-end in terms of the talent surrounding him with the Lakers going forward. If the Lakers re-signed Howard, even the bold move of amnestying Pau Gasol and his $19.3 million contract would leave them too far over the luxury-tax line to have access to anything beyond the taxpayer mid-level exception and minimum contracts to improve the roster. Teams that are $4 million or more above the tax line cannot use the full mid-level or bi-annual exceptions to sign free agents. Also, Kobe Bryant will be 35 and coming off surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon.

In the summer of 2014, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and other stars become free agents, the Lakers would only have Howard and Steve Nash under contract. Among the key questions Howard will be asking himself in the next six weeks is whether he's willing to endure another difficult season in LA with the prospect of rebuilding in 2014-15. The Rockets would have Howard, Harden, Asik, Parsons and Jeremy Lin at that point, with flexibility to further upgrade the roster.

One of the people briefed on Howard's plans stressed that no decision has been made on his impending free agency. But with so many options available and issues in play, Howard doesn't seem to be on track for the kind of quick decision the Lakers were hoping for so they'd have time to plan their offseason.

In short: Let the Dwightmare begin. Again.

CBS Sports Insider

Ken Berger began covering the NBA when Kobe Bryant was a rookie. Somehow, he'll outlast him. Ken has multiple top-10 finishes in the APSE writing contest and one championship to his credit - the 2015 Metropolitan... Full Bio

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