The Atlanta Hawks are said to be "in the mix" for Magic center Dwight Howard. Al Horford was rumored to be a trading piece for the superstar before, and there's still a chance Horford could go to Orlando now. (The Associated Press)

Dwight Howard made it perfectly clear on Monday that he wants to play for the Nets. But just as badly as he wants to be in Brooklyn, he wants out of Orlando.

Now that his favorite destination has appeared to close its door on him just a little, the door is wide open for Howard to return home. And home looks more appealing now than it has in a long time.

Sam Amick of Sports Illustrated has said Atlanta is “in the mix” for Howard, and there’s multiple reasons to believe that. Howard is from Atlanta. He’d also be reunited with friends Josh Smith and Anthony Morrow, whom the Hawks recently acquired. Plus, new general manager Danny Ferry has pulled off two impressive moves after just nine days on the job, giving Atlanta loads of cap space while giving Smith newfound belief in the direction of the franchise after previously asking to be traded himself.

Now the Hawks have money, two attractive pieces in two-time All-Star power forward Al Horford and talented young guard Jeff Teague as well as several expiring contracts to offer the Magic. That makes Atlanta a legit landing spot for the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

This isn’t the first time Horford has dealt with trade rumors involving Howard. On Dec. 29, only two days after the Hawks’ season-opener, it was confirmed that the Hawks had engaged in trade talks with the Magic for a deal that would bring Howard to Atlanta. During an appearance on ESPN Radio, Horford was given the notion that the Magic would surely want Horford if a deal for Howard was to materialize.

“Wow,” Horford said at the time. “I guess I’m heading back to Florida. … I don’t know. That’s interesting. I know that Dwight is from here, but as far as I know, this is the first I’ve heard of it. But it’ll be interesting.”

Those and all talks of a trade for the still-disgruntled center faded then, but they’re back with a vengeance now. And the Hawks have quickly gotten themselves back in the discussion thanks to Ferry’s immediate impact since being hired on June 25.

First, he did away with one of the worst contracts in the league, which was inked exactly two years to the day when shooting guard Joe Johnson got a 6-year, $119 million deal to stay in Atlanta. The Hawks would’ve paid Johnson $90 million over the next four seasons and $25 million at the age of 34. Instead, Atlanta got that off its chest in exchange for the expiring contracts of Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro and Jordan Williams along with DeShawn Stevenson (via sign-and-trade) and a future first-round pick (lottery-protected in 2013 via Houston).

Not long after that move, the Hawks shed small forward Marvin Williams for Utah point guard Devin Harris. Williams — taken No. 2 overall in the 2005 draft ahead of Chris Paul — had two seasons left on his deal that was scheduled to pay him $8.3 million and $7.5 million. Combined with the Johnson trade, Atlanta is unloading more than $105 million in long-term salary in the two deals and is taking back just $23.5 million.

Up until this point, the Hawks haven’t been mentioned nearly as much as the Nets, Mavericks or Lakers as potential suitors for Howard. New Jersey is reportedly offering Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and three first-round draft picks in 2013, 2015 and 2017 with Lopez and Humphries going in sign-and-trade deals. Los Angeles can offer center Andrew Bynum and Houston has been gathering draft picks and assets to tempt Orlando. Dallas is a possibility but while it does have some cap space, it doesn’t have attractive talent to give Orlando. The Mavericks’ best bet may be to wait until 2013 when the two best centers in the game — Howard and Bynum — are both unrestricted free agents.

Considering what its competition can put on the table, Atlanta’s pieces stack up just fine. And the likelihood of Horford actually heading back to Florida is at least greater now than he was led to believe at the turn of the year.

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