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NBA Free Agency Is Highlighted by Courtship of Dwight Howard

Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are two of the biggest names in the National Basketball Association’s free agency class of 2013. One appears to be staying in Los Angeles and the other could be on the way out.

Paul and Howard are among those NBA players who became unrestricted free agents at 12:01 a.m. today. Other notable names who can now be courted include Josh Smith, Manu Ginobili, Andre Iguodala, David West, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and J.R. Smith, who won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award with the New York Knicks last season.

Paul, a six-time All-Star point guard, is expected to verbally agree to a five-year, $107 million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, ESPN reported, citing unidentified people familiar with the situation. Paul, 28, has spent the past two seasons with the Clippers and has averaged 18.6 points and 9.8 assists over his eight-year NBA career.

Howard, meantime, may leave Los Angeles after one season with the Lakers, who in 2012-13 failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in six years.

The 27-year-old center, a seven-time All-Star and three-time NBA defensive player of the year, is already scheduled to meet with five teams, ESPN said, citing an unidentified person close to Howard. The Houston Rockets were the first team Howard was set to meet with, followed by the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks, ESPN said. The Lakers, who have erected billboards in and around Los Angeles urging Howard to stay, will be the last team to meet with him, according to ESPN.

Maximum Contract

The Lakers are able to offer Howard a contract worth $118 million over five years, the NBA’s maximum, while the most other teams could give him is a four-year, $88 million deal.

“It has to be his decision,” Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant said of Howard on the team’s website. “The last thing you want to do is convince a person that they want to be here. When it’s something that’s rooted inside of him, it’s something he champions. I just want to be there to assist his decision.”

NBA players can agree on contracts, though they can’t officially sign new deals until July 10, when the league’s moratorium on trades and signings is lifted.

The Rockets, one of the teams in pursuit of Howard, yesterday freed up salary cap space by releasing shooting guard Carlos Delfino and point guard Aaron Brooks.

Josh Smith, a 27-year-old forward, has spent his entire nine-year NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks and averaged 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds a game last season.

Ginobili, 35, has also played for only one team throughout his NBA career, having been with the San Antonio Spurs for the past 11 years. He averaged 11.8 points and 4.6 assists last season in helping the Spurs reach the NBA Finals.

Nuggets Exit?

Iguodala, 29, opted to become a free agent after one season with the Denver Nuggets, while West, 32, was the second-leading scorer for the Indiana Pacers team that reached the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Jefferson and Millsap, both 28, were the top two scorers for the Utah Jazz last season, combining to average 32.4 points and 16.3 rebounds a game. J.R. Smith, 27, was the Knicks’ second-leading scorer at 18.1 points a game in 2012-13, though he shot just 33 percent from the floor in the postseason.

The Knicks have agreed to acquire 7-foot forward Andrea Bargnani from the Toronto Raptors for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby and a first-round draft selection in 2016, the New York Times reported, citing an unidentified person involved in the trade talks. Bargnani was the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NBA draft and has averaged 15.2 points and 4.8 rebounds over seven seasons.

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