The long, arduous decline of Dwight Howard continued with the Atlanta Hawks trading him to the Charlotte Hornets for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and the 41st pick. Atlanta also sent out the 31st overall pick, so they traded down ten spots while taking on a worse contract in Plumlee. This is how Dwight Howard is viewed in 2017. Even the Brooklyn Nets, the franchise he was always destined to join in 2011 and 2012, decided instead they’d prefer the contract of Timofey Mozgov to be the team that gives D’Angelo Russell his second chance.
The Hawks signed Howard last summer on a three-year, $70.5 million contract just as they let Al Horford leave for the Boston Celtics because they were an embarrassingly small amount of money apart on negotiations. The Hawks’ preferred plan was to sign Howard, re-sign Horford to slide down to power forward, and trade away Paul Millsap to upgrade their roster elsewhere. Millsap was one year away from free agency and the least attractive to sign long-term as the oldest of the three while he would also qualify for a 35 percent max with his 10 years of service.
Less than a year later, the Hawks lost Horford without compensation, failed to trade Millsap at the deadline and will likely lose him in the same way, and then gave Howard away for one of the NBA’s most toxic contracts in Miles Plumlee.
Howard continues to prove he’ll never again return to anywhere close to his MVP candidate, perennial All-NBA self, but he was still productive on defense and on the glass for the Hawks. Howard is basically a league average starting center who wrecks the spacing of an offense and still remains incapable of grasping the reality of what he does best. This has been one of the recurring hallmarks of his exasperating career. Howard wanted to be a low post scorer instead of embracing being the best dive man in the NBA out of the pick-and-roll, and now he’s working on becoming a three-point shooter. Howard’s physical gifts have been diminished while the game evolved away from him. Orlando’s four-out system with Howard felt new and modern at the time, but none of the game’s most promising young centers have his type of profile except for Andre Drummond, who has plateaued in how he can contribute to winning basketball and could also be traded this summer.
The desperation of the Hawks to simply get rid of Howard was evident with how bad this trade is in its simplest terms. Trading back 10 slots is plain enough, but trading for Plumlee after he’s already been salary dumped once and has one extra season on his deal compared to Howard shows Travis Schlenk’s anxiety that he was going to be stuck in a situation where he may have to follow the path Stan Van Gundy took when he took over the Detroit Pistons with Josh Smith.
Grade for Hawks: D-
The truly productive part of Howard’s career where he had no peer at center are forever blotted by these past few seasons in which he’s jumped from the Magic to the Lakers for one season, to the Rockets for three seasons, the Hawks for one season and now Charlotte. Howard has dropped from truly great, to an elite player with injury issues and an unwillingness to embrace his strengths, to a genuine NBA afterthought. Howard’s trade was literally not even in the top-10 most important stories of the day.
At least Howard gets to reunite with Steve Clifford and there will predictably be stories coming out of Charlotte leading up to the season on how the old Dwight is back and that he’s changed his approach. Howard fits about as well with the Hornets as he would with any other team in the NBA. Charlotte was a playoff team when they received even merely adequate play at center but Cody Zeller unfortunately appeared in only 62 games and that was the difference between the playoffs and lottery.
The Hornets were really good at times during the 15-16 season and could quickly return to the playoffs, especially since the Hawks and Pacers are almost certainly dropping out next season. Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are a perimeter core that should complement Howard on offense and he also matches their timeline to contend while he comes off their books in just two seasons. If Clifford signed off on working with Howard again, that’s enough to feel comfortable with the move on that level.
The center market is notoriously overcrowded with supply, but Howard is good enough to make a difference still even if he’s inseparably judged against the prior version of himself we still occasionally remember that’s never coming back.
Grade for Hornets: B+