Lakers brace for worst with Howard

The teams in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes spent Independence Day in fairly agonizing fashion, left with no alternative but to wait and hope that a decision from the NBA's most coveted free agent indeed comes Friday.

It was a particularly uncomfortable holiday for the Los Angeles Lakers, sources told ESPN.com, as fears mount within the organization that Howard's current employers could have fallen to as low as fourth in his pecking order.

Sources close to the situation stressed that the famously fickle Howard -- deliberating at a hideaway in Aspen, Colo. -- still was undecided about choosing between the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and incumbent Lakers. Yet, there were indications late Thursday that Lakers officials, already bracing for the worst, had begun to rethink their long-held position of ruling out sign-and-trade options in the event Howard decides to bolt to one of L.A.'s rivals.

One source briefed on the Lakers' thinking told ESPN.com that, if the extra fifth year and nearly $30 million they can offer Howard isn't enough to hold off the competition, they would be forced to "look at everything."

For months, Lakers officials have privately indicated they have no interest in taking back long-term contracts in a sign-and-trade for Howard, preferring to preserve their salary-cap space for the summer of 2014 and focus on slashing their luxury-tax bill for the coming season.

The Lakers' ultimate preference, of course, remains to re-sign Howard. Yet, after team sources initially indicated the Lakers were feeling better about their chances after their face-to-face meeting with Howard on Tuesday than they did coming into it, pessimism began to creep back in Thursday, stemming mostly from ongoing questions outside and inside team headquarters about Howard's ability and willingness to co-exist alongside Kobe Bryant and play for coach Mike D'Antoni.

The Rockets and the Mavericks, in that order, have been generally regarded as the biggest threats to steal away Howard, but the Warriors have increasingly been tipped by sources close to the process as a threat coming up fast on the outside. That's despite the Warriors' apparent salary-cap limitations and a sentiment stemming largely from a Monday sitdown that, as ESPN.com later reported, made an undeniable "impression" on Howard.

ESPN.com reported Thursday the Warriors had begun aggressively trying to trade away the expiring contracts of Andrew Bogut ($14 million), Richard Jefferson ($11 million) and Andris Biedrins ($9 million). The plan was conceived in the longshot hope that they could clear sufficient salary-cap space to sign Howard outright without needing to sell the Lakers on a complicated sign-and-trade arrangement.

Hall of Fame writer Peter Vecsey, in the wake of ESPN.com's story about the Warriors' feverish attempts to create cap space, reported via his Twitter feed Thursday night that Golden State officials do believe that they have found trade destinations for Bogut, Jefferson and Biedrins should Howard choose Golden State and the Lakers refuse to engage them in sign-and-trade talks.

Three executives with rival teams, furthermore, told ESPN.com on Thursday that they likewise see Golden State as capable of trading away Bogut, Jefferson and Biedrins, if necessary, as long as the Warriors are willing to attach assets to the respective deals that help the cap-room teams taking on those three contracts to either come away with good young talent or improve their prospects for the 2014 NBA draft that has teams leaguewide so excited.

The Utah Jazz, sources said, have expressed the strongest in taking back Bogut, who played his way into the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft out of the University of Utah.

The Jazz and Warriors are in talks, sources say, with Utah possessing the requisite salary-cap space. The Jazz also have an opening to take in Bogut's contract and have an opening for a big man after letting Al Jefferson walk away without compensation to come to terms on a three-year deal worth nearly $41 million to sign with Charlotte.

Sources say the Hawks, meanwhile, have not been outright told they are out of contention, but they are the only one of the five teams to be granted face-to-face sitdowns with Howard this week that has begun to move on to other free-agent business as opposed to holding out hope that Howard remains gettable.

If Howard were to choose Houston or Golden State, sign-and-trade discussions inevitably will be proposed by the team that lands Howard. And there were signals Thursday night that, in the case of Golden State, L.A. would have to at least consider a swap if either Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson is added to the proposal along with Bogut.

The Rockets also have sign-and-trade pitches planned, sources said, with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik sure to be offered to L.A. in exchange for Howard, which could theoretically furnish the Lakers with a point guard in Lin, who played his best basketball under D'Antoni, as well as a top defensive big man in Asik. Yet, it remains to be seen if the Lakers are willing to bend their sign-and-trade stance, since both Lin and Asik possess contracts that stretch beyond the 2013-14 season.

Houston would covet a sign-and-trade arrangement, if it was fortunate enough to land Howard, so it could try to follow up that blockbuster acquisition by trying to sign Howard's good friend Josh Smith, whom the Rockets long have coveted.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban isn't talking about his meeting with Howard, per team policy.

"This is always our approach," Cuban said Thursday in an email to ESPNDallas.com. "We never talk about what we do. We don't test the waters in the media. We don't troll on twitter.

"The approach I learned from Donnie [Nelson] is that more teams will talk to you and be more open with you when they know they won't read about it. Same with players.

"The two things I hate the most are leaks to the media and the wave."

Information from ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon was used in this report.