There is only one certainty in the Dwight Howard saga.
Little has changed in recent weeks. Howard has kept his trade request on the table, and Magic officials continue to sound content to wait until March 1 to reassess their situation.
The front office believes there's no rush to make a decision — that Howard still would be in high demand if General Manager Otis Smith, CEO Alex Martins and Chairman Dan DeVos decide they must trade the six-time All-Star before the deadline.
In the meantime, members of the Magic front office hope that they can convince Howard to stay. They figure that winning games, being around teammates and hearing support from fans cannot hurt.
Martins is in contact with Howard almost every day. Even the team's 85-year-old owner, Rich DeVos, has made his sales pitch to Howard. Among other things, DeVos has told Howard that he might never develop as close a connection with a another city's fans as Howard currently has in Orlando.
The Magic have a reason to feel confident. If they keep him beyond the trade deadline, they will be able to offer him one additional year at higher annual raises than any of the other 29 teams.
But even that might not be enough.
The team that has Howard when the trade deadline expires will inherit his "Bird rights," and that team could offer him a five-year guaranteed contract with 7.5 percent annual raises if he becomes a free agent in July. That deal would be worth a total of about $110 million.
Any other team that would attempt to sign Howard as a free agent would be limited to offering a four-year guaranteed contract with 4.5 percent annual raises. That deal would be worth about $81 million.
Smith has likened turning down a five-year deal to taking a "$30 million haircut."
But the difference of about $30 million might be a bit deceptive.
The discrepancy in total salary between the first four years of a Bird-rights deal and the four years of a non-Bird-rights deal would be about $3.4 million.
Howard might be willing to forego that $3.4 million.
It's the fifth year that accounts for the bulk of the almost $30 million difference between a Bird-rights deal and a non-Bird rights deal. And Howard is a great enough player that, barring injury, he almost certainly would have no difficulty receiving another maximum-salary deal after he completes a four-year contract.
It's also possible that Howard instead would prefer the flexibility of a four-year deal, especially if a new four-year deal includes an opt-out clause after the third season. That way, if he's not happy with a new team, he would have the option to go elsewhere.
If Howard values winning as much as he says he does, then he might become more and more inclined as the trade deadline approaches to finish the year with the Magic.
Both the New Jersey Nets and the Dallas Mavericks — two of the three teams on his list of preferred trade destinations — are expected to have enough room under the salary cap to offer Howard a maximum deal in July, anyway.
The Nets, who are said to be at the top of Howard's list, trail the New York Knicks for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by six games. It would be difficult even for a tandem of Howard and Nets point guard Deron Williams to make up that ground.
In the meantime, Howard might be reluctant to see the Nets trade away many assets simply to acquire him now, because it would weaken the rest of the team and make it more difficult to win in the future.
The Magic have not been enthused by the package of players the Nets can offer. Center Brook Lopez, New Jersey's best available player, has missed the entire season so far with a broken right foot.
Magic officials have said since mid-December that they believe the trade offers for Howard will remain strong right up until the trade deadline.
On one hand, Howard is the game's best rebounder and its best defender, and he plays a position with few, if any, other dominant players.
On the other hand, teams that are not on Howard's list of preferred trade destinations might be less likely to try and acquire him as March 15 approaches.
With each day that passes between now and the beginning of free agency in July, teams would have one fewer day to attempt to convince Howard to remain with their team. So why would those teams trade valuable players to Orlando for a player who is unlikely to remain?
This is a dilemma the Magic face.
March 1 is an important day. It is the first day that players who were signed as free agents during the offseason will be eligible to be traded. Once that day arrives, the Magic would have more flexibility to add players to upgrade their team or, if necessary, package in a Howard trade.
Still, what would the Magic do at the deadline if Howard tells them that he says he has no interest in re-signing?
Team officials may decide they want to make another playoff run with Howard on the roster in an effort to get DeVos his elusive title.
Then, the team would take its chances with Howard this summer.
The trade deadline is only one month away, but even one month can be a long time in the basketball business.
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