One of the least interesting or surprising aspects of today’s trade between the Brooklyn Nets and Charlotte Hornets is that Dwight Howard was involved. Charlotte acquired Howard almost exactly one year ago, when Steve Clifford was head coach. Those two had a productive relationship on the Orlando Magic and reuniting them made sense for a capped-out roster that had very little upside. Howard is not the player he once was, but he's also not the least productive center in the league.
After a disappointing season in which the Hornets did not make the playoffs—in small part thanks to Howard having one of the least efficient scoring seasons of his career, though they performed like a 46-win team with him on the floor—they replaced Clifford with James Borrego and swapped out general manager Rich Cho for Mitch Kupchak, who has a history with Howard from their dysfunctional and highly disappointing time together in Los Angeles.
For all the grievances related to his farts, dad jokes, skittles obsession, and the general indignation he donated to teammates after his welcome was overstayed, this move was primarily about money. If the Hornets could get off Howard’s expiring contract, it always made sense for them to do so. There were other ways to avoid the luxury tax, but his $23.8 million anchor didn’t make sense on a team that wasn't even promised the postseason with him around.
People really enjoy ragging on Howard and that's understandable. The last four years of his career have been a colossal disappointment for a variety of reasons, some of which were always out of his hands. In Brooklyn, his fourth home in four years, Howard’s role under a coach who is allergic to dawdling post-ups and stale offense could curdle a positive yet delicate culture that seems to be heading in the right direction. Only the Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz, and Houston Rockets posted up less frequently than Brooklyn last season, when Kenny Atkinson refused to play Jahlil Okafor.
But enough about Howard. Even though he’s 32 and seven years removed from being the *actual* MVP of the entire league, with name recognition and tantalizing physicality, Howard moving to the Nets is not nearly as significant as the Nets getting another team to take the $16.7 million Mozgov is guaranteed in 2019-20.
The fact that Kupchak wants to be near one of the worst contracts in the league, a grotesque monster he himself brought into this world for no apparent reason, is telling, but also more of a sad coincidence than anything else. The Hornets had the most depressing long-term outlook in the league before they traded for Howard, and they’ll still be screwed long after he’s gone.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn is headed in the exact opposite direction. By exchanging Mozgov’s two-year deal (along with a pair of second-round draft picks and cash) for one season of Howard, the Nets will be able to open up around $67 million next summer. (That’s after Allen Crabbe exercises his player option, options for Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen are picked up, and all their own free agents are renounced.)
They take a financial hit this summer, when upgrading the roster with a savvy signing (i.e. J.J. Redick) could make them more attractive the following July, but internal growth from some of their younger pieces, like D’Angelo Russell, Allen, LeVert, and whoever they select with the 29th pick in Thursday’s draft, may still provide the momentum they need for a ticket to pitch the game’s brightest stars.
Here’s a generous list of players who may be unrestricted free agents next summer: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kemba Walker, Kevin Love, Nikola Jokic, Al Horford, Khris Middleton, and Tobias Harris. And here’s a list of players who may be restricted free agents: Devin Booker, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Myles Turner, Terry Rozier, and Justise Winslow.
A few of the unrestricted players on that list may re-enter the pool the following summer, potentially alongside Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green, DeMar DeRozan, Otto Porter, Harrison Barnes, and Eric Gordon.
Now, it's possible the Nets sign precisely zero of those players, but they've also been building up to this, with an attractive and accessible practice facility, contemporary stadium, feisty coaching staff, and front office with foresight. With the possibility of new ownership taking over a few years from now, headed by someone who's motivated to turn the franchise into a global brand, it's not a stretch to assume that gobs of money will be spent early and often as a way to poke their head up beside the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
Brooklyn's process, as opposed to Boston and Philly, will almost entirely run through free agency. Even though their first-round pick will be available in 2019 and beyond, there's a decent chance it won't crack the top 10 for the foreseeable future. This franchise is on an incline. That doesn't mean the Nets will land the pieces they desire, but it does, finally, make them relevant, respectable buyers. Eventually, some All-Star will like what they have to say and show real interest in becoming the face of a sleeping giant. Maybe he'll even bring a friend.
Would the Celtics worry if they knew Irving scheduled a meeting with Brooklyn? And then the Nets flew Butler in and sold them both on the opportunity to team up together? That specific scenario feels unlikely, but it's also not impossible. Indirectly, the Howard trade finally gives this franchise/fanbase something to look forward to.