- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Sources close to the process told ESPN.com that the Rockets have received what has been described as "hopeful signals" that Howard is seriously considering a jump from the Lakers to the Rockets after becoming a free agent July 1.
Although the Rockets are well aware that Howard has a penchant for changing his mind, sources say that Howard has conveyed his rising interest to Houston star swingman James Harden, a fellow West All-Star.
Sources say Howard, furthermore, has already made it clear he'll field in-person recruiting visits from the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks once free agency begins. It's possible, sources said, that other teams will be added to the list.
After the Rockets' elimination from the playoffs in May, when asked if he'll be an active participant in free-agent recruiting, Harden told ESPN.com: "Hell, yeah." When asked specifically about Howard, Harden cracked a smile and said: "Maybe. Possibly." There can be no formal contact between the Rockets and Howard until July 1, but the NBA does not typically regard discussions between players before the start of free agency as a form of tampering because the league finds it difficult to try to referee the nature of discussions between friends.
Several rival executives, meanwhile, told ESPN.com that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has likewise left the impression in recent days that Houston believes it has a legitimate shot at luring Howard away from the Lakers.
ESPN.com reported in April that the Rockets were planning to trade away 2012's No. 5 overall pick, Thomas Robinson, to a team with salary-cap space to create the requisite room to offer a max contract to Howard. In the past week, sources said, Morey pitched Robinson's availability to numerous teams, leaving the feeling that the Rockets think they have a legitimate shot in the Howard Sweepstakes.
Although only the Lakers can offer Howard a five-year deal worth nearly $120 million -- with leading external suitors Houston and Dallas limited to four-year offers worth just under $90 million -- L.A.'s financial advantage in trying to retain to Howard is not as robust as it seems. Not only does the absence of state taxes in Texas narrow the gap, but the strong likelihood that Howard, at 27, would opt out of a new deal to return to free agency before the fifth year lessens the Lakers' edge further.
The Rockets, though, are trying to keep their optimism in check, knowing that Howard has a history of calling audibles and, as one longtime Howard-watcher put it, "making everyone feel good about their chances."
The Lakers -- while acknowledging that the Rockets, Mavericks and Hawks are preparing full-out assaults on their All-Star center -- haven't backed off their intent to re-sign Howard one bit. Sources say Dallas owner Mark Cuban, meanwhile, continues to make plans to chase Howard and Los Angeles Clippers star guard Chris Paul with his max-salary slot in hopes of landing one transformational player.
ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported Thursday night that Paul is angry with the Clippers in the wake of owner Donald Sterling's open suggestions to the Los Angeles Times that coach Vinny Del Negro was not retained at Paul's behest. The depths of Paul's dismay aren't immediately clear, but his frustrations could crack the door open for the Hawks to join the Rockets and Mavericks as a free-agent threat this summer, since Atlanta is the only team this offseason that will have the requisite cap space to sign both Howard and Paul.
Although Howard has maintained a longstanding coolness to the idea of signing with his hometown Hawks, it's believed that stance could change if Paul had serious interest in going to Atlanta with him.