A depressed market, $47.3 million guaranteed over the next two years, and a new general manager who values character, athleticism, and skill are what led us to the most joyless and fascinating trade (so far) of the NBA offseason. One day before last week's draft, the Atlanta Hawks shipped Dwight Howard and the 31st pick to the Charlotte Hornets for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli, and the 41st pick.
Howard's fit with the Hawks felt odd from Day 1, both on the court and in the locker room. Atlanta ostensibly values its culture and selfless playing style; Howard is a brute-force player, and something of a noxious personality.
Still, given his pedigree and production value, Howard's trade return value less than one year later was low enough to make Atlanta look desperate to move on. Incoming Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk—a respected basketball nomad who helped build the two-time champion Golden State Warriors—treated the three-time Defensive Player of the Year like radioactive waste, an act that didn't surprise anyone who's followed Howard's career.
But one team's trash is another team's treasure, and Howard now finds himself playing for Steve Clifford, a former coach who knows how to accentuate his players' strengths and hide their weaknesses. Charlotte's steady and safe principles suit Howard reasonably well, and once you get beyond the lingering stigma that follows him wherever he goes, this could be a mutually beneficial relationship for the next two years.
Despite improving their offense for a third straight season, Charlotte won 12 fewer games and missed the playoffs last year. Several factors led to the Hornets' downfall—including Cody Zeller's poor health and Roy Hibbert no longer being an NBA-caliber player—but nothing was more disappointing than their defense.
The Hornets allowed 4.3 more points and a whopping 6.1 more three-point attempts per 100 possessions than the previous season. Opponents launched 23.8 shots above-the-break per game—often the byproduct of poor perimeter defense that gave up advantageous drive-and-kick situations—which led the whole league. Only two teams tallied fewer deflections per 48 minutes.
Given Charlotte's restricted long-term cap flexibility and a core that might've already plateaued, a road to sustainable relevance, let alone championship contention, didn't exist a few weeks ago. Acquiring Howard doesn't pave it smooth, but it does make the franchise more formidable and deep in the short-term, especially if Howard simplifies his rolel and just plays like a more physical version of Zeller
Gauging Howard's value and productivity has been nearly impossible over the past few seasons. His inability to harmonize off the court with integral on-court collaborators (read: get along with his teammates) all but ostracized him from the last three teams he's played for, while physical decline and the league's sudden aversion to low-post sledgehammers have minimized his role and influence.
Being a top-five player for over half a decade doesn't exactly help current perceptions of Howard—he isn't close to what he once was—but relative to other starting centers, he still provides above-average support. And (a humongous caveat is right around the corner) if Clifford can motivate him to exert energy with even fewer post touches and just about no sets called for him to score, Howard still can perform like a different kind of game-changing monster.
Twenty-eight percent of Howard's offense came via post-ups last season, leading all of his play types according to Synergy Sports. That happened even though he only ranked in the 38th percentile, averaging a woeful 0.84 points per possession. In other words, Howard made his team worse with every post-up.
That's the bad news. The good news? In almost every other half-court scenario, Howard was awesome, whether it be on put-backs, cutting from the dunker's spot, or catching lobs as a roll man. Among all players who averaged at least five shots in the restricted area, only LeBron James and DeAndre Jordan topped Howard's 71.9 percent shooting. Howard remains a raging rhinoceros when he wants to be, and a fearsome presence in the paint on both sides of the ball—indeed, few big men are harder to score on in a one-on-one situation.
Howard ranked 14th out of the 71 centers who qualified in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and only Rudy Gobert, Jordan, and Hassan Whiteside fared better among players who averaged at least 29 minutes per game.
Instead of the electric guardrail wrapped in barbed wire that he once was, Howard is now a sturdy picket fence with a big "Beware of Dog" sign on the door. But at 31 years old, that still gets the job done more times than not. When he was on the floor last season, the percentage of opposing shots around the basket dropped by 5.1 percent compared to when he sat. Most of those looks were reallocated to the mid-range. He's still feared.
Again, it's no guarantee Howard finally/willingly buys into into a changed role for the greater good, but the Hornets have enough talent and continuity to place top 10 in offensive and defensive rating if he does. Nothing against Dennis Schroder, the feisty but impatient Hawks point guard who struggled to form any chemistry with Howard in their lone season together, but Kemba Walker is a substantial upgrade so far as pick-and-roll partners go.
Per Synergy Sports, of the 20 players who ended a possession passing to the roll man at least 200 times last season, Walker was the fifth-most efficient (trailing Chris Paul, John Wall, James Harden, and Ricky Rubio). He only turned it over 5.7 percent of the time (again, good for fifth best). Meanwhile, Schroder was all over the place, with a turnover and efficiency rate that both ranked second to last.
(Worth noting: Schroder had Howard, while Walker had Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, and a bunch of guys who prefer to pop out to the perimeter.)
Assuming the Hornets hold onto Zeller, they now have one of the most impressive backup centers in the league, ensuring a positive two-way presence is on the floor in the event someone finds himself in foul trouble or is simply having an off night. And for a team that concentrates on transition defense over just about everything else, Howard should be able to grab a few of his teammate's missed shots without disrupting the Hornets' immaculate floor balance.
He finished with the highest offensive and total rebound rate of his career last season, providing relentless pressure on defenders whenever his own team missed a shot. There are roughly 10,000,000 easier tasks in basketball than boxing this dude out.
Charlotte's starting five could be as strong a defensive unit as any in the league, with Walker, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, and Howard all on the floor. And when Clifford surrounds his new center with four shooters, their offense will pop—rookie Malik Monk should be able to help right away, and it's not too much to ask Kaminsky to sink more than 34.6 percent of his wide open threes next season.
There's a slight "Boy Who Cried Wolf" mood surrounding Howard at this stage of his career, but don't underestimate how powerful a new role, setting, and batch of teammates can be for a player who still has enough physical tools to impact games without ever touching the ball.
This doesn't mean Howard shouldn't ever be fed on the block, but this team has superior scoring options and dynamic offensive weapons. If Charlotte's new center realizes he's nothing more than a well-decorated role player, the Hornets will bounce back into the playoffs.