- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Precisely when the Orlando Magic might be willing to trade Dwight Howard is not yet clear.
All we know right now is that it’s obviously not going to be soon enough for New Jersey Nets fans, who serenaded their team with chants of "We Want Howard" during a humbling home defeat to the Atlanta Hawks at the Prudential Center on Tuesday night.
Which only happened to be the Nets' home opener.
There is at least a fairly clear sense out there about what the Magic would eventually want in exchange for Howard if they decide, as widely expected between now and the March 15 deadline, to make sure they get something for their face of the franchise as opposed to risking the sight of their Team USA center bolting Orlando in July with nothing coming back in return, just like a certain TNT analyst did in the Olympic summer of 1996.
A picture of what the Magic will ultimately expect in a swap for their defensive anchor has indeed begun to emerge, with sources briefed on Orlando's thinking telling ESPN.com this week that the Magic does not plan to hold out for youth and draft picks as the league-owned New Orleans Hornets were ordered to do in the Chris Paul sweepstakes. The Magic, sources say, would instead prefer to bring back multiple established veterans who can keep the team competitive.
Reason being: Orlando moved into a new arena last season and has a 85-year-old owner in Rich De Vos. Sources say De Vos has little interest in starting over/rebuilding, as evidenced by the recent decisions to trade for Glen "Big Baby" Davis and re-sign Jason Richardson even though Howard's future is so murky.
The trade proposal for Howard that advanced the farthest to date -- before Magic GM Otis Smith publicly announced that he's not ready to part with his 26-year-old star -- would have delivered Nets center Brook Lopez, Portland Trail Blazers swingman Gerald Wallace and at least one first-round pick to Orlando while also seeing the Nets absorb the long-term contracts of Hedo Turkoglu and Chris Duhon for the right to take Dwight with them to Brooklyn.
Sources told ESPN.com that the aforementioned Hawks, meanwhile, engaged Orlando in trade talks for Howard earlier this month with an offer believed to be headlined by $124 million guard Joe Johnson and swingman Josh Smith. You have to figure that the Magic, though, would insist on Al Horford if such discussions ever got serious.
The Hawks are not on Howard's short list of preferred trade destinations alongside the Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks, even though Atlanta is his hometown. That's presumably because Howard wants no part of Atlanta's perpetually unsettled ownership situation. The Hawks nonetheless took the risk of pursuing Howard anyway without any assurances about how long he’d be willing to stay and, according to sources, felt like they were making some semblance of progress before the Magic shut down talks.
Yet it appears that the Magic, as the Orlando Sentinel reported earlier this month, are inclined to wait until closer to the trading deadline before making a move to keep open the possibility that Howard has a change of heart and consents to a contract extension that prevents him from reaching free agency.
It remains to be seen if Orlando will win enough in the short term to stay patient and maintain some level of calm surrounding Howard. But patience is a posture that the Magic believe they can afford to take because, as Smith told the Sentinel's Josh Robbins: “I don’t think there’s anything on the table that won’t be on the table three months from now."
Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, has formal permission from the Magic to discuss trade possibilities with the three teams (Nets, Lakers and Mavs) atop Howard's wish list. The strongest signals in circulation indicate that Howard has the Nets in the top spot on that list, since that would allow him to to hook up with fellow All-Star Deron Williams, move with the Nets to Brooklyn starting next season and -- perhaps as important as anything, one source maintains -- hush the criticism about following Shaquille O'Neal's career script too closely by choosing to spurn the Lakers instead of joining them.
Yet multiple teams observing the Dwight Sweepstakes have suggested this month that the best offer Orlando is likely to see figures to be a three-way deal reminiscent of the trade construction that the Lakers and Houston Rockets hatched in their near-trade for CP3 that was ultimately vetoed by NBA commissioner David Stern in his role as the Hornets' stand-in owner.
If the Lakers reach the point that they're willing to give up both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol in a three-way Dwight deal with the Rockets, Orlando could conceivably come away with Bynum, Luis Scola and Kevin Martin, with Gasol landing in Houston as he would have in the original Paul trade. That would undoubtedly be a strong trio to start over with, in addition to shedding Turkoglu and perhaps Duhon, who are both signed through the 2013-14 season at a combined cost of roughly $45 million.
But here's the thing: L.A. might not ever get to that point. If the Lakers are unwilling to give up both Bynum and Gasol, as some insiders continue to suggest, that trade concept will never progress to an active discussion.
Complicating things further, of course, is the recent foot injury suffered by the Nets' Lopez, whose best attribute -- if you're comparing him to Bynum -- had been his durability until this setback. It's anyone's guess now as to whether Lopez will be healthy enough to include in a trade package if/when the Magic are finally ready to deal … or if New Jersey will have to try to rope in an additional team or two to replace Lopez in the deal and still assemble an offer good enough to trump the Lakers and any other team (like Atlanta) willing to gamble on Howard without a clear-cut promise that DH12 will stay.