The Houston Rockets have joined the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets as the most serious potential trade partners with the Orlando Magic on a Dwight Howard deal, according to sources close to the process.
Sources told ESPN.com that the Rockets are discussing a multitude of trade scenarios with the Magic, offering to serve both as the team that would acquire Howard in a direct trade between the clubs and also as a third team that would participate in a trade that lands Howard with the Lakers and brings All-Star center Andrew Bynum to Houston.
The Rockets, in the latter scenario, would push to acquire Bynum from the Lakers while furnishing the Magic with a package of future draft picks and cap-friendly contracts to set Orlando up for a full-fledged roster reload. Sources confirmed a HoopsWorld.com report that the three-team trade construction that sends Bynum to the Rockets instead of the Magic -- with Orlando said to be concerned about its ability to re-sign Bynum for the long term -- gained traction Tuesday.
The key elements of the three-team proposal, sources said, call for the Lakers to acquire Howard and the Rockets -- realizing their long-running quest to acquire a top-20 player -- to take back the mercurial Bynum as he enters the final year of his contract.
It's believed that Houston would have to absorb the contract of Magic swingman Jason Richardson and perhaps another unpalatable contract or two to complete a trade directly with the Magic for Howard or to get Bynum. Central to the Rockets' offer is a 2013 first-round draft pick that they'll soon acquire from the Toronto Raptors as part of a verbally agreed trade last week that will send guard Kyle Lowry to Toronto. Houston also has movable veterans Luis Scola and Kevin Martin to sweeten any trade proposal.
It's been an open secret for months, meanwhile, that the Rockets were willing to trade for a player of Howard's or Bynum's caliber with no assurance that either one will sign an extension as opposed to becoming a free agent in 2013.
Houston's posture, sources said, remains one of confidence that any top-20 player it can acquire will be convinced to stay once he becomes part of the organization.
Sources say that new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan might feel more comfortable taking back a package of youngsters, recent draftees and future first-round draft picks -- while shedding some long-term salary as well -- than taking on Bynum as Howard's replacement and facing a similar challenge in convincing him to commit to the franchise long-term like the Magic have dealt with for months with Howard.
ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher reported earlier Tuesday that the Magic had reopened negotiations with teams other than the Nets for Howard after the Cleveland Cavaliers -- who Monday appeared poised to trigger a four-team trade to bring Howard to Brooklyn that also involved the Los Angeles Clippers -- backed away from the trade talks.
Bucher reported the Atlanta Hawks continue to pursue Howard via trade as well, but one source described Atlanta as "not the best option" for the Magic.
The Nets have been working feverishly all month to finally acquire Howard to pair with returning All-Star guard Deron Williams and incoming All-Star guard Joe Johnson, but they need other teams to help complete the deal.
Sources told ESPN.com on Monday the Nets and Magic were cautiously optimistic the Cavaliers and Clippers would sign off on a four-team blockbuster that would have sent Howard, Richardson, Chris Duhon and Earl Clark to Brooklyn, with Orlando receiving Brook Lopez, Luke Walton, Damion James, Shelden Williams, Armon Johnson and three first-round picks -- two from the Nets and a lottery-protected first-rounder from the Clippers. Sources said that the Cavaliers would have received Kris Humphries, Quentin Richardson, Sundiata Gaines, one future first-round pick from the Nets and $3 million in cash, with the Clippers taking in MarShon Brooks.
But sources said that the complexities involved in that trade, which required free agents such as Lopez and Humphries to agree to be signed and traded to make it work, appear to have led to its collapse. Another factor, sources say, is Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's reluctance to sign off on a trade that would surely set up the Cavaliers for heavy criticism for their role in helping the Nets assemble the NBA's latest star-laden lineup to compete with the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Lakers.
One source told ESPNNewYork.com's Ian O'Connor on Tuesday the Nets will be ready to move on from their pursuit of Howard if a trade with the Magic can't be worked out by Wednesday.
If the Nets and Magic do manage to rekindle a multiteam trade proposal, sources told ESPN.com on Monday the Charlotte Bobcats are another potential trade partner in a Howard-to-Brooklyn deal.
As part of their due diligence, Brooklyn and Orlando have already exchanged medical information on Howard (back surgery) and Lopez (foot surgery), sources said.
Multiple league executives told ESPN.com on Sunday that there is growing reluctance among some teams to participate in the sort of multiteam deal that would get Howard to Brooklyn amid some league-wide dissatisfaction that the Lakers were able to reach terms on a sign-and-trade deal for Steve Nash last week.
Being the cog in creating another superteam in Brooklyn, with Williams and Johnson already in the mix in Brooklyn along with the returning Gerald Wallace, is not palatable to some teams concerned about competitive balance.
"You can talk about the new [luxury] tax all you want, but if the Lakers get Nash and the Nets get Howard, then what did the new CBA accomplish?" one GM said. "You have to realize part of long-term planning is making sure you don't help create teams you can't beat."
Bucher also reported Tuesday that the Golden State Warriors, long known as one of the teams -- like Houston -- willing to gamble on a Howard trade with no long-term assurances -- are no longer in the trade hunt for Howard.
And the Lakers, like Brooklyn, likely need a third team themselves to complete a trade for Howard because they don't have the financial flexibility to take back contracts such as those belonging to Richardson and Duhon and don't have future first-round picks handy after committing two to Phoenix in last week's sign-and-trade agreement for Nash.
Information from ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher was used in this report.