Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford says Dwight Howard can return to All-Star form this season, following Tuesday’s trade with the Atlanta Hawks.
Clifford coached Howard for six seasons as an assistant with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. At a news conference Wednesday, Clifford said Howard has lost some athleticism since his rookie season in 2004, but that his game has matured.
Howard, an eight-time All-Star, averaged 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds last season, his only one with his hometown Hawks. He signed a contract with the Hawks last summer that will pay him about $23 million each of the next two seasons.
This will be Howard’s fifth NBA team. He has at times been high-maintenance, as when he reportedly pushed Magic management to fire coach Stan Van Gundy several years ago.
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Hornets general manager Rich Cho, who finalized this trade Tuesday night, said Clifford’s longtime experience with Howard was a “big factor” in the Hornets’ comfort making this move. The Hornets sent Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and the 41st overall pick in Thursday’s NBA draft to the Hawks. The Hornets get Howard and the 31st overall pick, at the top of the second round.
Hornets owner Michael Jordan spoke with Howard Tuesday night. Jordan told Cho that Howard seems excited about the prospect of playing for the Hornets.
Clifford and Cho said Howard, who is 6-foot-11 and 256 pounds, can provide the rim protection, rebounding and physicality the Hornets often lacked last season, going 36-46 and missing the playoffs.
Clifford said teams saw coming to play the Hornets as a chore the three seasons prior to last season, because the team played so hard. Clifford said it got “easy” to beat the Hornets over the last 25 games of last season.
Other points from Clifford’s and Cho’s comments:
▪ Clifford and Cho both spoke with Cody Zeller, who started at center most of last season for the Hornets. Zeller, who signed a four-year, $56 million contract extension last fall, was assured by Clifford that he’s still a core piece of this roster. Clifford said he’s not thought yet about whether Howard or Zeller would start next season, but said Zeller’s role shouldn’t diminish.
Zeller told Clifford he looks forward to not having to play against Howard four times a season. Howard hit Zeller with an elbow last season that cause Howard to be ejected.
▪ Cho said moving up in the second round from the 41st pick to 31 should be advantageous. “I think we’ll get a really good player there in a deep draft,” Cho said.
▪ Clifford praised Howard’s intellect and savvy. “At Orlando, he was defensive player of the year twice and he ran our defense.”
▪ Cho said acquiring Howard does not necessarily change how the Hornets might use their first-round pick, 11th overall, Thursday.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell