The Los Angeles Lakers have consistently turned away trade inquiries in recent weeks for All-Star center Dwight Howard and still believe they have a strong chance of signing him to a new contract when Howard becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, according to sources close to the situation.
But sources told ESPN.com this week the Lakers might be forced to reconsider that position between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline because of Howard's growing unhappiness with his role under coach Mike D'Antoni and the potential that raises for Howard leaving them in July without compensation.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, however, said that a trade is not imminent.
"I don't think we're at the point where you say, 'It's time for a trade,' and a trade happens in three to four days. That's just not how this league works," Kupchak said in a phone interview with ESPN.
Howard has not publicly indicated any desire to sign elsewhere when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1 and came to Los Angeles determined to succeed with a minimum amount of fuss after the hits he took image-wise during his drawn-out departure from the Orlando Magic.
But sources say that Howard, as the Lakers' struggles have mounted, has dropped hints within team circles about his discomfort in D'Antoni's system and that he could consider moving on if things don't improve or change.
Howard has, indeed, publicly struggled to mask his frustration in recent days about his role in D'Antoni's offense. After Monday's road loss to the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls, in which he finished with eight points and attempted just five shots, Howard said: "They made it tough. I missed some shots early, didn't get an opportunity to go to work like I wanted to." When pressed further, Howard repeatedly pointed at a stat sheet (showing five shot attempts) and insisted the Lakers needed to "play inside-out."
"There's nothing I can do," Howard told reporters in Chicago. "Just continue to play. Not get frustrated. As hard as it is, I can't get frustrated."
The Lakers, sources say, have been telling interested teams that they don't want to make a major move of any kind between now and the trade deadline given how tumultuous their season has already been. Following the much-heralded offseason acquisitions of Howard and Steve Nash, Mike Brown was fired after just five games and replaced by D'Antoni after the Lakers flirted with bringing back legendary coach Phil Jackson.
In addition to rebuffing the trade interest in Howard, Lakers officials are also reluctant to trade Pau Gasol for players who fit D'Antoni's system better -- despite Gasol's recent demotion to the bench -- because they still have no assurances Howard will stay beyond this season and don't want to risk losing both of their elite big men after trading away Andrew Bynum in the original Howard deal last August.
The Lakers' league-high $100 million payroll likewise makes it difficult to seriously consider deals involving Gasol because the Spaniard's $19.3 million salary would almost certainly require them to take back long-term contracts they want to avoid. L.A. has been trying to preserve the considerable payroll flexibility that it's on course to have in summer 2014.
The Lakers knew when they acquired Howard in a four-team deal with Orlando, Philadelphia and Denver that the 27-year-old would not immediately sign a contract extension as part of the trade because the league's new labor agreement makes it more financially advantageous for Howard to wait until July to sign his next deal. But the resulting uncertainty those circumstances bring for the Lakers has only added to the pressure felt throughout the organization as they sit seven games below .500 at the midpoint of the 82-game regular season.
When the Lakers hired D'Antoni, it was with the vision of Howard thriving alongside Nash as Amar'e Stoudemire did in Phoenix, operating as the "roll man" in a pick-and-roll offense driven by Nash as opposed to a traditional back-to-basket center.
None of those visions, however, have come to bear yet. With Nash missing seven weeks with a leg fracture -- including D'Antoni's first 16 games in charge -- and Howard still recovering from back surgery last April while also coping with a recent shoulder injury, timing between the two has shown few signs of improvement.
The inability of Howard and Nash to find pick-and-roll harmony has likewise had a ripple effect throughout the roster, with the increasingly under-fire D'Antoni demoting Gasol from the starting lineup Tuesday because he feels Gasol and Howard are both most effective at the center position and haven't learned how yet to play off each other well.
Howard and several other players have soured on D'Antoni's perimeter-oriented offensive system, sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. A few have gone to him about slowing down the tempo and playing inside-out, but so far D'Antoni hasn't been willing to change.
"Without a doubt, we have utmost confidence in Mike as a coach," Kupchak told ESPN. "I think if you spoke to him, his vision on Day 1 was dramatically different than it is today. It's the coach's job to adjust and to make changes. Sometimes a player is just not going to fit. Sometimes a coach has to make changes and compromise in the way he's done things and I think that's what Mike is going through right now is just the process."
"Obviously, this isn't working," Lakers star Kobe Bryant told Yahoo! Sports after the Chicago loss.
"I've tried to go out of my way to get (Howard) the ball. Sometimes I end up looking like an idiot, because I get up in the air, I've got a shot, but I try to find him. But he thinks I'm going to shoot, so his back is turned. I'm trying to think about getting him the ball a lot -- take care of him as much as I possibly can. It takes me out of rhythm a little bit, but I'm fine with that. If that's going to help our team, I'm more than willing to do that.
"I've constantly tried to help him out, tried to talk to him," Bryant continued. "Two o'clock in the morning, three o'clock in the morning. Texting him. Sharing reading materials. Anything to try and help him.
"He's coming off a major surgery in a market where it's just merciless; where there's demands and responsibilities of athletes. It's been tough on him."
The blame in L.A. has been widespread, with both Howard and Gasol facing criticism for not battling through these tough times with the needed resolve. D'Antoni getting second-guessed with rising volume for not tweaking his spread-the-floor system to accommodate his marquee players and Bryant critiquing himself this week for missing too many shots on an 0-2 road trip that has spiraled into six straight losses away from Staples Center and three straight losses overall heading into Thursday's game at Memphis.
Explaining the lineup change that elevated Earl Clark to a starting spot over Gasol, D'Antoni told reporters in Chicago: "We got to go small. That's just the way it is. It's after [Gasol] had a great game (with 25 points on 10-for-15 shooting Sunday in Toronto). It's not him. I talked to him and he understands where we have to go and we got to do it."
For his part, Gasol said he was "not happy about" the switch but added that "right now I'm more worried about us as a team and us struggling."
The Lakers have strongly believed from the start that Howard would stay in Los Angeles for the long term, pointing to the franchise's rich tradition with big men and the fact that they don't make a habit of losing their own marquee free agents. But those assumptions were based on the notion that Howard, once he got a taste of the Lakers' championship culture and all the ancillary benefits that come with playing in Los Angeles, wouldn't want to play anywhere else.
These Lakers, however, are miles away from a championship culture. The Chicago loss, its ninth in January, dropped L.A. to 17-24 and down to 12th place in the Western Conference, four games behind eighth-place Houston for the West's final playoff spot.
In a radio appearance two weeks ago on ESPNLA 710, Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss said he was confident Howard would want to stay in Los Angeles regardless of how this season ended up.
"If we make the playoffs, that means we're playing well and I think we'll go deep in the playoffs and it's a no-brainer that he stays," Buss said in the January 10 radio interview. "I think if it continues to fall apart because of injuries, I'm hoping we can convince him: 'Look, everybody was injured, you weren't 100 percent for the whole year, let's give it another shot next year.' It points to 95 percent that we'll be able to keep him. I can't control what he does, but I can sure make a great argument."
The Lakers, beyond all the perks associated with playing for them, have the advantage of being able to offer Howard more money and years than any other team thanks to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. But they've gone just 2-4 since Buss' comments, with the negative atmosphere around the team only growing amid all the losing.
Calls for D'Antoni, who received a four-year contract in November when he took the job, to go away from small-ball preferences only figure to get louder in the wake of the fresh concerns voiced by Bryant.
"We need to go back to basics," Bryant told Yahoo! "We need to put guys in positions to do what they do best. We need to strip it down. Steve is best in pick-and-roll. Pau is best in the post. I'm best from the free-throw line extended down. Let's go back to basics.
"We've got to evaluate what's going on. Management is looking at it. The players are looking at it. I'm looking at myself. I'm shooting a low percentage right now, and I've got to look at that. It's on me to make shots, but I'm having to make tough shots, getting the ball 30 feet from the basket and [expletive] like that."
ESPN.com reported earlier this month that there's no shortage of rival executives who believe that the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks -- who'll both have the requisite cap space to steal him away -- would get serious consideration from Howard if he decides to explore his options in free agency.
"I have it as Lakers, Dallas or Atlanta for Dwight," one Western Conference GM said recently.
The Brooklyn Nets are believed to still strongly intrigue Howard as a future destination after the Nets' long-running attempts to trade for him last season. But after re-signing Deron Williams and Brook Lopez last summer and taking on more than $300 million in long-term salary commitments, Brooklyn can only acquire Howard via trade now, which would likely require an additional team (or teams) to join in even if the Lakers were amenable.
ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.