I agree with all the misgivings about the Charlotte Hornets taking on the roughly $32 million remaining on center Timofey Mozgov’s contract.
However, shipping Dwight Howard off this roster makes sense on multiple levels. The Hornets and Nets have agreed to a deal that can’t be official until July that will swap those two centers, plus send two second-round picks and some cash to the Hornets.
Wednesday’s news comes exactly one year after the Atlanta Hawks dealt Howard to the Hornets, accepting Miles Plumlee’s awful contract in return.
Ask yourself: If the Hawks were willing to take back an awful contract to move Howard and then the Hornets agreed to do the same one season later, doesn’t that make a statement?
Howard is 32, and arguably the best center of his generation. He is also quirky, stubborn and occasionally childish. He plays his way and expects others to adapt to him. That was a problem, particularly so for shooting guard Nic Batum, the Hornets’ biggest investment in terms of contract. But Batum wasn’t the only player who found it challenging to make this work.
The day after the Hornets finished last season 36-46, then-coach Steve Clifford said this team lacked the “spirit” of prior teams Clifford coached in Charlotte. I agree, and Howard was a factor in that. I’m not saying he was a bad guy, I’m saying this was a bad fit. That was only going to get worse next season, when Howard is yet older and there’s no reason to assume the 2018-19 season will end in a playoff berth.
Batum took a lot of criticism last season, some of it justified. But I watched all the ways he tried to fit his game with Howard’s. Batum’s best attribute is smart decisions with the ball that lead to high-quality shots. Much of that was negated with how the ball stopped when it hit Howard in the post.
Batum, with about $75 million in guaranteed money still, is part of the Hornets’ future. Howard really wasn’t.
This trade is an attempt to fix a mess Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak inherited when he took over in April. It’s ironic Kupchak plans to address it by trading for Mozgov, since Kupchak signed Mozgov to that overpriced contract with the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2016.
The Hornets have a new coach in James Borrego, and Borrego’s initial comments on Howard last month seemed lukewarm at best. Saddling a rookie coach with an aging, high-maintenance former star would have been a hassle, particularly if Borrego had made Howard a reserve.
There are a lot of facets to this: I think this trade signals a bigger role — probably a return to the starting lineup — for Cody Zeller at center. That makes sense with Borrego’s stated intention to play at a faster pace than the Hornets did last season. Howard is better suited to more deliberate, half-court offense. Not saying Howard wouldn’t run, but up-tempo is more Zeller’s style at this point in those two centers’ careers.
Also, there is a short-term benefit to this in terms of payroll flexibility. I have written for months about how close the Hornets were to the NBA’s projected luxury-tax threshold for next season, and how problematic that is.
Mozgov’s $16 million salary next season is about $7 1/2 million less than Howard’s salary next season, moving the Hornets away from that tax line and opening wiggle room to be involved in free agency.
To do this, the Hornets will take on Mozgov’s $16.7 million salary for 2019-20, which could be wasted money. People have asked me why not just cut Howard. That would have avoided paying Mozgov, but it would do nothing to mitigate the Hornets’ payroll mess going into July.
When Kupchak was hired in April, I said this job, at least initially, is much more about what must be undone than what can be done. This trade epitomizes that.