Originally Published: January 13, 2012

1. Where Will Dwight Howard Land?

Stein By Marc Stein
ESPN.com
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Dwight HowardKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTwo months away from the trade deadline, Dwight Howard can't be sure where he's headed, either.

RENO, Nev. -- It wasn't quite as easy as walking into one of the sports books downtown and finding a printed menu with all the possibilities, but Dwight Howard trade forecasts could be found in abundance this week in The Biggest Little City In The World.

With representatives from all 30 teams in town for the annual D-League Showcase, grading the potential of the 160-plus players toiling in the NBA's official development league, ESPN.com asked a handful of team officials in attendance to share their predictions for how the Howard saga will ultimately play out, given that the reigning three-time Defensive Player of the Year is still angling for a new address and with the trade deadline only two months away.

Reps from 10 teams were asked to weigh in anonymously on the various outcomes we're likeliest to see in coming weeks, with the Orlando Magic clinging to the hope that they can convince Howard to make a U-turn on his refusal to commit there long term even though they lack quality trade assets or financial flexibility to improve the roster to sway him.

The most popular scenarios in play during scouting breaks:

Dwight winds up in New Jersey before the deadline

Only three of the 10 teams surveyed in Reno cosigned on the idea that the teetering Nets, with their 2-9 record and Brook Lopez still weeks away from getting back on the floor, can manufacture a multi-team deal that unites Howard and Deron Williams in New Jersey before the team moves to Brooklyn next fall.

The consensus is that the Nets, thanks to Lopez's broken foot, will now have to assemble a far more attractive deal than the three-teamer discussed in December that would have sent Lopez and Portland's Gerald Wallace to the Magic -- while also unburdening Orlando of the unwanted contracts owned by Hedo Turkoglu and Chris Duhon -- before Lopez went down. The Blazers' growing fondness for Wallace since those discussions dissolved would presumably make it tough on the Nets just to get talks back to where they were last month with the Magic and Blazers, when Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was poised to furnish Portland with four first-round picks in exchange for its willingness to surrender Wallace.

One of those three pro-Nets teams, however, made the audacious claim that the Knicks can still swoop in and beat New Jersey to Howard, despite the fact that the only apparent means for the Nets' dreaded neighbors in nearby Manhattan to force their way into the Howard sweepstakes would hinge on the Magic's willingness (or another team's in the deal) to take on Amare Stoudemire. Even with Amare's considerable Orlando ties, sources say that the Magic's interest in Stoudemire has been chilly at best since he became a free agent in July 2010. The 29-year-old is in Year 2 of a nine-figure contract that can't be insured because of his history with knee surgeries.


Dwight winds up in Lakerland before the deadline

I thought this number would be higher, but officials from the four Laker-backing teams were at least more adamant than their counterparts that L.A. has the strongest hope of eventually constructing a Dwight deal that the Magic can stomach.

It's widely assumed in GM circles that the Lakers are not willing to surrender both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to acquire Howard. Whether or not L.A. relaxes that stance, it's still hard to imagine someone out there being able to trump a multi-team trade construction that ultimately sends Bynum to Orlando.

"The Lakers still have the best pieces to offer," said one team official from the East.

Said another from the West: "If Dwight's getting traded before March 15, it's only going to be to the Lakers."


Dwight winds up in Chicago before the deadline

Only one team rep I encountered was prepared to list Chicago as the favorite to land Howard, but a couple others openly wondered why Howard is so reluctant to add the Bulls to the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks on his list of preferred destinations.

The only plausible theory, unless Howard is so vehemently averse to Chicago weather, is the one in circulation about adidas urging Howard not to play alongside Derrick Rose so its two biggest shoe-sellers don't wind up in the same city.

One source in Reno said of the Bulls: "They've got so many pieces to work with [headlined by Joakim Noah] and they're very interested. I don't think [the Bulls] are going away, either. They're not going to be convinced they can't get Dwight until he goes somewhere else."


Dwight goes to a "rental" team before the deadline

Couldn't find any support at the Showcase for this scenario.

There obviously are teams out there willing to trade for Howard with no assurance that he'll stay beyond June, just because they're convinced it's worth it to them to try to get him in town and hope that he can be swayed to stay.

The problem?

The two most prominent teams on that list (Atlanta and Golden State) have just been forced to shelve their two most attractive trade assets (Al Horford and Stephen Curry) with worrisome injuries. The sort of injuries that would have a big impact on trade talks.

So perhaps a viable renter for Howard will emerge over the next 63 days. But it hasn't happened yet.


Dwight stays in Orlando

In the surprise of the week on this scorecard, I heard officials from two teams insist that Orlando's keeping Howard past the March 15 trade buzzer is the scenario they actually expect ... even if that means exposing the Magic Kingdom to the prospect of being leveled again by a repeat of Shaquille O'Neal's defection without compensation to the Lakers in the Olympic summer of 1996.

Could GM Otis Smith and Magic ownership really dare to let the trade deadline pass and risk the sight of Howard's leaving not only for the 2012 London Games in July but also for a new full-time team ... while getting nothing back in return?

Just so they can tell Magic fans they exhausted every concept they could concoct to try to keep Dwight?

Can't see how.

Yet one observer from the West says: "Is that any more risk than taking a bad deal now?"

Added an observer from the East: "I really think Otis is going to dig in and try to convince him to stay in Orlando. Especially if they keep playing well."

One source who voted in the Nets' favor, however, disputes the widespread notion that Orlando is permanently locked into keeping Howard through All-Star Weekend -- which comes to town Feb. 24-26 -- and will then use the next two-plus weeks before the deadline to find the right deal.

The source said: "When the owner says, 'Let's trade him,' is when it's finally going to happen."


Dwight and Dallas-area native D-Will wind up with the Mavs next summer

It has not reached the point that teams think Dallas actually has this fantasy double down all lined up already Miami Heat-style. Anyone who has studied the Mavericks' cap situation knows they'd have to clear out pretty much everyone on the roster not named Dirk Nowitzki to have enough cap space to make bids high enough for two max-level players to consider them.

Specifically? Dallas would likely have to release Brendan Haywood through the amnesty clause next summer, trade away Shawn Marion without taking back any salary and also give away young guards Roddy Beaubois and Dominique Jones, while also letting free agents-to-be Jason Terry, Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West all walk.

However ...

Lots of folks around the league are starting to believe that it's possible if not probable. Even before the Showcase started Monday, two rival executives told ESPN.com that they think Marion will still have trade value at season's end after the defense and energy he supplied during Dallas' championship run and the solid manner in which he's started this season.

If they're right, even with two seasons left on Marion's contract after this one (valued at just over $18 million) and his 34th birthday looming in May, Dallas really could have a shot as long as Howard is wearing anything but a Nets or Lakers jersey at season's end.

Said one East admirer of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: "Mark has made Dallas a destination city right up there with the Lakers and Miami."

Dimes past: Jan. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6-7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12


2. Western Conference


Negotiations on a contract extension are underway between Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari and his representatives, according to sources close to the situation.

Jan. 25 is the deadline for such extensions and Gallinari has joined Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, Minnesota's Kevin Love and Portland's Nicolas Batum at the top of the list of players hoping to join Chicago's Derrick Rose in receiving a new deal before that buzzer sounds. Rose is the only player from the 2008 NBA draft to sign an extension so far.

The current leaguewide expectation is that only a few more Class of 2008 draftees will actually land extensions in the next 12 days, since teams don't necessarily have to rush knowing that all of the above become restricted free agents on July 1 without an extension as long as they receive a qualifying offer by June 30.

Other top draftees from the class of 2008 include Minnesota's Michael Beasley, Memphis' O.J Mayo, New Orleans' Eric Gordon, Charlotte's D.J. Augustin, New Jersey's Brook Lopez, Indiana's Roy Hibbert, Washington's JaVale McGee and Orlando's Ryan Anderson.

Gallinari started the season slowly, averaging just 12.3 points on 34.1 percent shooting in Denver's first four games, but he's leading the Nuggets in scoring now at 17.2 points per game on career-best 47 percent shooting from the floor. Yet it remains to be seen whether Denver, fresh off re-signing Nene and swingman Arron Afflalo for a combined $110 million last month, is prepared to do another big deal now or ask the Italian forward to wait.


Some numbers of note in the West this week:

131: Before Kobe Bryant's two scoring eruptions this week for the Lakers, 131 games had been played this season without a single 40-point game. That's the furthest into a season in the shot-clock era (which dates to 1954-55) in terms of NBA games played without a 40-point game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The previous longest drought was established in 2004-05, when Dirk Nowitzki scored 41 points for Dallas after 68 games had been played that season.

48: Kobe's 48 points against Phoenix on Tuesday night came at the age of 33 years and 140 days. That's the most points he's ever scored in a game without making a single 3-pointer and the most in a regulation-length game for a player that old since Michael Jordan scored 51 points for the Wizards against the Charlotte Hornets on Dec. 29, 2001, at age 38.

6: The Clippers average a league-leading six dunks per game, ahead of Miami and New York, each at 5.5 slams per game.

54: With his 27 points and 11 assists in the Clippers' overtime win Wednesday over Miami, Chris Paul recorded the 54th 25-and-10 game of his career … one more than the Heat's LeBron James since Paul's rookie season in 2005-06. New Jersey's Deron Williams has 50 25-and-10 games in the same span.

14: Minnesota's Ricky Rubio had 14 assists in his eighth NBA game. Oscar Robertson didn't have a 14-assist game until the 20th game of his NBA career … and neither Magic Johnson nor John Stockton rang up 14 assists in a game until early in his second NBA season (Magic in his 80th game, Stockton in his 86th).


Thunder big man Serge Ibaka is another prominent draftee from the Class of 2008, but he's not eligible for an extension until July because he wasn't signed to an NBA contract until 2009.

Kevin Durant, meanwhile, says he's going to need more time in the gym to be able to replicate Nowitzki's one-legged stepback jumper with greater regularity despite working on the shot all summer.

"I get double-teamed a lot in the post," Durant said, "so I gotta figure out how to shoot that shot a little quicker."

3. All-Showcase Team

After 16 games in four days featuring 160-plus NBA aspirants in Reno, Nev., it's time for ESPN.com's annual All-Showcase Team from the D-League Showcase, selected by yours truly based overwhelmingly on what happened on the floor ... but also with a dash of subjective whim thrown in:

Guard: Justin Dentmon (Austin Toros)
Dentmon probably ranks as the front-runner in the D-League MVP race after leading Austin to a 14-3 start and had two more big scoring games (26 and 27 points) in the presence of all the scouts at the Reno Events Center.

An undersized shooting guard for most of his career, Dentmon is trying to convince NBA folks that he can play point guard at the highest level after going to training camp with the New Orleans Hornets but failing to stick.

Dentmon also played a significant role for the bronze medal-winning squad USA Basketball sent to the Pan American Games over the summer and, based on the rumbles I'm hearing, will eventually break through this season for no less than a 10-day contract. He didn't shoot the ball well with the Hornets but is back to blazing with the Toros.

The challenge, though, for all the top D-League point guards is not letting themselves get discouraged by the fact experience won out when the Chicago Bulls needed an extra point guard this week. Mike James got the NBA recall from the Bulls over Dentmon and Co. after just two games in the D, which is the sort of disappointment D-League youngsters have to grind through ... especially when they're still waiting for their NBA break.

Guard: Mike James (Erie BayHawks)
The 36-year-old had only one big game here, struggling in the second half of a back-to-back, but that was after he rung up a smooth 23 points in a whopping 42 minutes in his Erie debut. James then became one of only two players in town -- along with Malcolm Thomas going from the Los Angeles D-Fenders to the San Antonio Spurs before he actually got to play in Reno -- to get called up to the big time from the Showcase. Which clinched a spot on this squad because that's the goal of the whole exercise.

Also impressive were Walker Russell Jr. of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (who, in his fifth D-League season, had 19 assists in his first game) and my personal favorite: Jerome Randle of the Maine Red Claws. Lil' Randle won several admirers in Dallas for the way he played in Mavs camp and looks to me like a sure-thing NBA tempo-changer off the bench despite the natural concerns about his size. With his speed and the way he can shoot it, Randle surely will get his shot.

The steady and experienced Blake Ahearn (Reno Bighorns) and the lights-out shooter with one of the best names in basketball -- Booker Woodfox of the Texas Legends -- delivered as they always have at this level. Manny Harris of the Canton Charge also left the distinct impression that he'll be back in the NBA soon.

Forward: Edwin Ubiles (Dakota Wizards)
I could have easily gone for Gerald Green here based off his one breakout game, but we cover Green plenty in Box 7. Suffice it to say that he's worked his way back onto the NBA radar because scoring ability is such a treasured commodity. ("Green scored 35 in half his games here," one Eastern Conference witness quipped.)

Andre Emmett from the hometown Bighorns was another scoring machine, totaling 57 points in his two appearances, but the name I heard most when scouts talked about the swing positions was undoubtedly Ubiles. A big summer with Puerto Rico's national team put him on the map after Ubiles lost last season to injury and he has recovered from the disappointment of losing out to Chris Wright for the Golden State Warriors' final roster spot in training camp to thrive at multiple positions with Dakota.

Forward: Brandon Costner (L.A. D-Fenders)
I had multiple scouts advise me not to put Costner on my All-Showcase squad when I informed them how I was leaning, turned off by Costner's weight and consistent reluctance to apply himself defensively. But you guys know I'm a sucker for lefties.

That's especially true when you can shoot it like Costner. He has deep range and has me convinced that he can be an NBA stretch power forward next to a full-sized center -- think Ryan Anderson in Orlando alongside Dwight Howard -- if he'd just slim down and show more dedication.

A telling snapshot of Costner's standing among NBA decision-makers: 66 players in the D-League were summoned to training camps when the lockout ended ... and the 6-foot-9 forward from North Carolina State wasn't one of them. He's averaging 24.1 points and 5.8 rebounds for the season and he scored 29 points in just under 32 minutes in the game I caught against the Springfield Armor, needing only 12 shots from the field thanks to four triples and the 13 trips Costner earned to the line.

Costner's spot was sealed, furthermore, when Houston Rockets first-round pick Marcus Morris suffered an ankle injury Thursday. Morris was the 14th overall selection in June and thus ranked as the most decorated player on assignment from the NBA at the Showcase, which is a tag he's validated by averaging nearly 30 points and 12 boards in his first three D-League outings.

Center: Greg Ostertag (Texas Legends)
You hear it all the time at this level: The D-League isn't for big men.

But that hasn't stopped Ostertag from making a comeback at 38 ... under 74-year-old Legends coach Del Harris. Tag made an impression in Reno, too, with 21 hardy minutes Wednesday against the Sioux Falls Skyforce -- against the sons of former foes Patrick Ewing and Anthony Mason, no less -- in which he registered a solid 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

The view here: If he can get in anything close to NBA shape, Ostertag really will get one more shot just because of his know-how and physical presence. His conditioning obviously remains well shy of NBA standards just a few weeks into the experiment, but Rio Grande Valley Vipers coach Nick Nurse insists that Ostertag's attempt to make it back to the big stage after five seasons out of the game is legit.

"He knocks people down," Nurse said. "He's hard to deal with. Every time I've seen him, he matters in the game."

Among the young(er) center prospects I saw, Fort Wayne's Jarrid Famous caught the eye, not only because of his unforgettable name but also because he seemingly scored every time I looked up when I watched him go for 20 points and nine boards in the Mad Ants' 100-96 victory over Bakersfield on Day 1. (Famous is fortunate that I was otherwise engaged when he could only manage four points and six rebounds in 37 minutes in a loss Thursday night to Tulsa.)

4. Salary Study

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Following up on our recent look at how rosters were assembled in terms of trades, draft picks and free-agent signings, next up is a look at how each team's payroll breaks down in terms of contract type after the most recent move in the league: Chicago's signing of veteran guard Mike James to fill in for the hobbling Derrick Rose.

The groupings for all 30 teams start at the minimum salary level and are separated by increments of $5 million ... with only four players in the league (Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and, yes, Rashard Lewis) in the exclusive club of players making more than $20 million in 2011-12.

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