In a Wednesday night conference call with team officials before Orlando's game in San Antonio, after indications to the contrary earlier in the day, Howard firmly told the Magic he is not prepared to surrender the option in his contract that allows him to become a free agent at season's end.
Magic spokesman George Galante confirmed the conference call to the Associated Press on Wednesday night after ESPN.com, citing sources with knowledge of the call, reported that Howard and agent Dan Fegan clarified their position with Magic CEO Alex Martins, owner Rich DeVos and other members of the DeVos family on the line.
Howard's revised stance forces the Magic to decide before Thursday's 3 p.m. ET trade buzzer whether they are prepared to "roll the dice," as Howard described it after Tuesday night's win over Miami. Orlando could keep him past the deadline in hopes that a successful playoff run and the 26-year-old's longstanding ties to the community ultimately will convince him to stay in Orlando beyond this season.
The rising expectation among rival teams, however, is the Magic have no choice and eventually will concede before the deadline they have to deal Howard to ensure they don't lose him without compensation in the summer, despite the elder DeVos' well-chronicled determination to keep him, no matter how many outsiders are urging him to make a move.
Sources told ESPN.com late Wednesday the New Jersey Nets have had the most serious discussions with the Magic this week. The teams were engaged in talks late Wednesday night, with the prospect of at least one more team being recruited into a trade seen as the most likely scenario.
"I believe that you will see Dwight traded to New Jersey tomorrow," said one source close to the process, referring to the team widely regarded as the No. 1 destination on Howard's wish list.
Although the Houston Rockets, sources said, remain willing to trade for Howard with no assurance he'll stay past the end of the season, Orlando's list of potential trade partners is believed to be far shorter than expected for a player of Howard's caliber. Sources say interested teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls are reluctant to part with any meaningful assets in a swap with Orlando because Howard has convinced so many executives around the league that he's determined to leave whoever trades for him and play for the Brooklyn-bound Nets next season.
There were numerous reports earlier Wednesday indicating Howard had agreed to waive his early termination option and lock himself into the final season of his current contract with the Magic. But one source close to the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year insisted Howard "didn't fully understand the ramifications" of surrendering his ETO.
Fegan then added in a statement to ESPN.com that Howard only did so in conversations with teammates and team officials earlier Wednesday because he had been warned by the Magic that they would definitely trade him this week if he didn't take that step.
"Dwight has chosen not to waive his ETO under pressure from the team that he might be traded," Fegan said. "However, Dwight expressed once again on a call today with the DeVos family and Alex Martins that he very much desires to pursue a championship this year with the Magic. Dwight also expressed that he had no intention of leaving the Magic high and dry at the end of the season."
There was considerable shock leaguewide when word began to spread earlier Wednesday that Howard was prepared to surrender his early termination option. Franchise players waiving an opt-out and the leverage that comes with it in a free-agent year is almost unprecedented in the NBA. Chris Paul was asked to waive his ETO as part of the trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Clippers in December, but that was a pre-condition established by the Clippers to push the trade through.
Yet it appears the Magic, who have grown weary of trying to pin Howard down on his intentions, were expecting this sort of reversal. It followed an eventful afternoon in San Antonio, where Howard told selected teammates and Martins by phone that he was prepared to lock himself into the final season of his current contract and commit to Orlando through the 2012-13 season.
The Magic thus continued throughout the day to field calls from teams interested in trading for Howard -- with the Nets at the front of the line -- because league rules dictate that the verbal pledges from Howard to waive his ETO would not have become binding unless both he and Fegan formally signed a waiver locking him into next season's $19.5 million salary with Orlando.
During the ensuing conference call, sources said, Howard told the Magic that staying in Orlando in his first choice, but he also made it clear he's ultimately not prepared to put any commitment in writing beyond this season.
Howard declined to speak to reporters before Wednesday's game against the Spurs. Magic general manager Otis Smith did not travel with the team and stayed in Orlando.
ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported earlier Wednesday the Magic telling teams they planned to trade Howard before Thursday's deadline if Howard did not commit to them beyond this season.
"Dwight's dreaming if he thinks Orlando won't trade him without a commitment," one source told Broussard. "He needs to make some small commitment to them. They're saying it can't be one way."
While the Magic naturally would prefer Howard sign a maximum extension that would keep him in Orlando through the 2014-15 season, they were prepared to settle for locking in Howard's contract through next season by waiving the ETO. That theoretically would have given the Magic more time to pull off a trade for a star to play beside him, enhancing their chances of keeping Howard long-term.
The Magic, sources say, believe Howard is legitimately torn. But they also believe his comments Tuesday about wanting to finish this season in Orlando were a ploy to allow the Nets -- one of the three teams Howard requested a trade to in the preseason along with Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers -- to keep their players and assets and thereby enable Howard to join a stronger Nets team this summer as a free agent.
Information from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard and The Associated Press was used in this report.