The New Jersey Nets are prepared to offer a trade package featuring Brook Lopez and two future first-round picks to acquire Dwight Howard before the Orlando Magic center becomes a free agent in July 2012, according to sources close to the situation.
Sources told ESPN.com this week that, to sweeten the proposal, New Jersey would likewise offer to take back the contract of Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu, who has three seasons left on his contract worth just under $35 million. Absorbing Turkoglu's remaining salary would become financially feasible for the Nets after the expected release of swingman Travis Outlaw through the amnesty clause that will be included in the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement and by including another smaller contract or two in the deal.
Although teams won't be cleared to start making official roster moves until Dec. 9 at the earliest following the 149-day lockout, sources say team executives have been discussing potential trades for some time in anticipation of a condensed and hurried free agency period before the season's scheduled Dec. 25 start.
No trade deadline for the 2011-12 season has been set in stone yet by the league office, but many team executives believe it will fall in March. Once the league officially re-opens for business, Howard's future in Orlando is sure to be one of the season's dominant story lines, along with Chris Paul's future in New Orleans and the Nets' attempts to secure a long-term commitment from star guard Deron Williams.
It's been an open secret around the league that the Nets' dream scenario is pairing Howard with Williams, after they followed up their failed pursuit of Carmelo Anthony last season by trading for Williams just before the February trade deadline. It remains to be seen whether Howard will regard the Nets as a prime destination on par with the New York Knicks, even after they move out of New Jersey, but sources say that Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov has long believed that teaming them up would convince both Team USA stars to commit their long-term future to the Brooklyn-bound Nets.
Most rival teams, however, doubt that the Magic can be convinced to start seriously considering trade scenarios for Howard this early. Orlando has thus far resisted outside interest in hopes of convincing the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year to stay in Central Florida. Two team executives monitoring the situation told ESPN.com on Tuesday night that they expect Orlando to take a patient approach with what could be Howard's last year in town.
The Los Angeles Lakers are also expected to eventually lodge their own trade bid for Howard -- featuring some combination of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom -- but the Nets appear poised to furnish Orlando with a young replacement for Howard in Lopez, two higher draft picks than the Lakers could presumably offer and the ability to shed Turkoglu's expensive deal, which will enable Orlando to take another big rebuilding step.
It should be noted, though, that making such an offer -- even if Orlando ultimately proves amenable -- comes with its own risks for the Nets. The new tentative labor agreement struck last weekend by NBA owners and players has established new restrictions on extend-and-trade deals that would prevent Howard from receiving more than a one-year extension to his current contract as part of any trade. That's a sharp contrast from the four-year extension worth nearly $86 million that Anthony received as part of his trade from Denver to New York in February.
In the event of a trade to any team, Howard would have the choice of a deal that includes a contract extension that could put him back on the free-agent market in the summer of 2014 or a trade without an extension that would preserve his right to opt out of the 2012-13 season on his current deal and become a free agent on July 1, 2012.
The Nets, then, would be putting themselves in danger of surrendering three more prime assets for Howard, after everything they gave up to get Williams, with both stars capable of opting out after the 2011-12 season and becoming unrestricted free agents.
Despite the Nets' obvious interest, the Lakers and Knicks continue to be widely presumed to be Howard's preferred destinations. The Los Angeles Clippers are also regarded as a legit contender Howard, despite the franchise's history under owner Donald Sterling, because they'll have cap space and could pair him with rising star Blake Griffin.
In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, Howard said: "There's more you can do in a bigger place. I'm stuck in a tough position because I feel like right now, where I'm at, I've done so much. And I just don't know what else I can do."
Sources say that the Nets, furthermore, will go ahead with their plans to be very active in free agency starting Wednesday at 9 a.m., when teams and agents are allowed to start discussions about player signings. Howard remains Prokhorov's No. 1 target, but New Jersey is expected to lodge bids for two of the top big men available in free agency -- Denver's Nene and Dallas' Tyson Chandler -- knowing that Howard will be hard to acquire even with its solid trade assets and that Williams is unlikely to stay with the Nets unless the roster is upgraded at center and small forward.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Chad Ford covers the NBA and NBA Draft for ESPN Insider.