Trades have always been these Charlotte Hornets’ thing, all the way back to before the Bobcats’ first season, when then-general manager Bernie Bickerstaff moved up to second in the draft to select Emeka Okafor in 2004.
There was one player selected before Okafor in that draft: an absurdly muscular, athletic teenager from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy named Dwight Howard.
Assuming no unexpected snag in a conference call with NBA salary-cap reviewers, the Hornets will become Howard’s fifth team in a career that has included eight All-Star appearances.
I interviewed Howard at his high school that winter before the NBA returned to Charlotte. When he walked through the door, it struck me that those shoulders were as wide as I could remember on any NBA player. He was wearing one of those letterman jackets, and I couldn’t help but think how dramatically his wardrobe was about to change.
Howard, a 6-foot-11, 256-pound center, comes to the Hornets from the Atlanta Hawks, in return for Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli. The Hornets will also swap second-round picks in Thursday’s draft, meaning they will pick 31st overall (top of the second round), rather than 41st.
Howard signed with the Hawks last summer after stays with the Orlando Magic (the team that drafted him), the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets.
Howard can be high-maintenance. For instance, he was a factor in the end of Stan Van Gundy’s time as Magic coach. But the Hornets know what they are taking on. Charlotte’s coach, Steve Clifford, was an assistant on Van Gundy’s Magic staff and worked extensively with Howard.
Howard doesn’t affect games as he once did, as evidenced by his sitting late in a playoff loss to the Washington Wizards this spring. His career free-throw percentage – 56.6 percent - is awful, so teams have taken plenty of intentional fouls over the span of his career.
But his statistics from last season – 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 63 percent shooting from the field – suggest this 31-year-old still has something left to offer.
The blunt truth is the Hornets gave up next to nothing to make this deal. Getting rid of Plumlee and the remaining time on his contract ($12.4 million each of the next three seasons) is by itself a plus. It’s not Plumlee’s fault he got hurt almost immediately after the February trade from Milwaukee. But inheriting that contract for a player of such limited ability seemed as misguided then as it does now.
Belinelli, acquired from the Sacramento Kings for the 2016 No. 22 overall pick, was solid in his one season as a Hornet, but far from irreplaceable.
If Clifford can keep Howard on message, Howard can address rim-protection and rebounding. Some fans think the Hornets’ offense was their bigger flaw in a disappointing 36-46 season. I disagree; this team’s problem was a setback defensively and a bad second unit.
Howard can’t help but improve this team defensively, and regardless of who starts at center between Howard and Cody Zeller, the bench just got better. Both Howard and Zeller should collaborate well with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker in the pick-and-roll. Also, the attention Howard will draw in the post from defenses will help open the game for the Hornets’ perimeter shooters.
That’s the upside. The risk in this is whether Howard will fit into this locker room.
I started covering the NBA in 1988, and this group of players is as good a bunch as I’ve encountered. Walker, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all lead in their own ways. Hopefully, they will rub off on Howard and continue this collaborative tone of recent seasons in Charlotte.
You have to wonder why the Hawks gave up on Howard after a single season in Atlanta. He is scheduled to make $23.5 million each of the next two seasons. The Hornets have four other players who will make at least $12 million next season.
While Cho subscribes to the “best player available” approach, I would assume acquiring Howard makes it more likely the Hornets take a perimeter player with the 11th overall pick than they might have prior to this deal.
Barring someone falling in the draft order, such as Kentucky shooting guard Malik Monk, I was figuring the Hornets might have a choice between Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell and Gonzaga’s Zach Collins.
Adding Howard reinforces a win-now agenda. With that in mind, drafting Mitchell – a long-armed defender at guard – would seem like a logical next step.