I’m incredibly impressed with center Dwight Howard’s consistent ability this season to deliver rebounds and points.
If there are NBA teams out there similarly impressed, then sad as this sounds, I’d be fine with the next Charlotte Hornets general manager trading Howard this summer.
Something has to change this offseason. The Hornets (25-33) are already dangerously close to next season’s projected luxury-tax threshold of about $120 million. This payroll approaches that number with 10 players under guaranteed contract.
Howard is slated to make $23 million-plus next season. If another team would assume that salary, sending back to Charlotte a couple of young players and some salary-cap relief, I’d grudgingly give up Howard to make those changes.
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Particularly so, if the alternative is giving up point guard Kemba Walker to accomplish the same agenda. Walker, coming off his second All-Star appearance, scored 31 points in the Hornets’ 111-96 home victory Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets. It was Walker’s 10th game of 30-plus points this season.
Howard finished this one with a season-high 24 rebounds, two short of matching his career best. He doesn’t play like a guy with 13 seasons and 35,000-plus NBA minutes. That’s a tribute to how well he takes care of his body, but more on that later.
The Hornets are in a salary-cap purgatory. Management knew the franchise was headed that way when it traded for Howard in June, but the Hornets also thought this was a team that could contend for one of the top four spots in the Eastern Conference, which would have meant home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Quite the contrary: To even be eighth seed is a long shot. A new set of eyes, with general manager Rich Cho’s departure Tuesday, means at minimum a reset, and quite possibly a full rebuild. Someone in the core seven or eight players is going to be gone by the time training camp comes next September. If the alternative is losing Walker, who is 27 and still improving, I’d sacrifice Howard.
Howard seems to enjoy it here, and why not? He works with a coach in Steve Clifford he knows and trusts. The Hornets welcomed him after his hometown team, the Atlanta Hawks, cast him off after one season.
If Howard were dealt again, it wouldn’t be because he’s been a disappointment, but rather because he’s matched even the highest individual expectations. This was his fifth game this season of 20 or more rebounds, the most by any player in a Hornets season. Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, says that’s a tribute to how phenomenally well Howard takes care of his body in-season and out-of-season.
“If I went back and told our trainers in Orlando, and our strength coaches, that he was going to be playing at this level now, with the state that his knee was back then, they would have said, ‘No way,’” Clifford said postgame.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s had major knee surgery and major back surgery ... You’d never know it.”
Howard has played every one of the Hornets’ 58 games this season, and doesn’t ask out of practices for so-called “vet days.”
“Look back at it every year: Unless he’s had surgery, he plays every night,” Clifford said. “He never asks out of practice. He didn’t when he was young, he didn’t in L.A., and he hasn’t here.”
Howard has said he should have at least five more good seasons in the NBA, and the current evidence supports as much. I’d assume pursuing a championship would be a priority at this juncture in his career. If there’s a team out there in contention, one that is already prepared to plunge into luxury tax for that shot at rings, interested in Howard, I say explore that possibility.
Something has to change, and someone with a real NBA resume will end up somewhere else.
It becomes a matter of choosing between unpleasant alternatives.