Charlotte Hornets

Why center Dwight Howard must embrace expectations of Hornets coach Steve Clifford

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, left, and new center Dwight Howard previously worked together in Orlando and Los Angeles.
Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, left, and new center Dwight Howard previously worked together in Orlando and Los Angeles. TNS

New Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard said repeatedly Monday how much he respects coach Steve Clifford and how he appreciates the respect Clifford has shown him.

“Not once did he turn his back on me,” Howard said at his introductory news conference. “Not once did he talk bad about me.”

Howard and Clifford have been together for nearly half of Howard’s 13 NBA seasons. Clifford was an assistant for five seasons in Orlando when Howard was there, and one more with the Los Angeles Lakers before being hired as the Hornets’ coach.

This is a new dynamic between these two, not just because Clifford is now a head coach, but because Howard is no longer a superstar. He is still paid like one at more than $26 million per season, but he hasn’t been an All-Star since the winter of 2014, playing for the Houston Rockets.

Howard was traded off the Atlanta Hawks’ roster for Miles Plumlee’s horrible contract and Marco Belinelli. The Hawks sweetened the deal by trading the Hornets the 31st overall pick in last week’s draft for No. 41. To say the Hawks were motivated sellers would be an understatement.

That doesn’t mean Howard, 31, won’t be useful here. He is equipped to be the rim protector the Hornets so lacked once Roy Hibbert injured his knee in the season opener last October. Howard has finished every NBA season averaging a double-double in points and rebounds.

Is he the amazing athlete he was as a teenager entering the 2004 draft? No. But he still has those broad shoulders and enough lift to help get the Hornets back on track for the postseason and maybe win a round of the playoffs.

Note the word “help” in that last sentence: Howard won’t be a savior here. He likely won’t be this team’s best player – point guard Kemba Walker deserved that All-Star appearance in February. Howard certainly won’t be an offensive “go-to” guy, although he will get his touches in the post with the Hornets running so many 1-in/4-out sets.

I assume Howard will start, but the incumbent starter at center, Cody Zeller, shouldn’t see any significant loss of minutes as a result of this trade. Zeller uses his speed and quickness well in pick-and-roll, particularly working with shooting guard Nic Batum.

Howard said Monday how much he looks forward to playing with Walker and Batum. He should. They have the varied skills to create good shots for themselves and others. Howard’s experience and savvy helped him grasp quickly this team has some assets.

That’s something Clifford emphasized Monday: That Howard’s basketball intellect was a big incentive for making this trade.

“Smart always wins in the NBA,” Clifford said. “He is as bright with coverages, knowing personnel (and) having technique as any player I’ve been around.”

Then Clifford addressed the nature of his and Howard’s relationship.

“What we’ve always been able to do is just communicate honestly and transparently,” Clifford said.

That was easy on a late-June day filled with mutual compliments. It will be different during the season, when Clifford gets in Howard’s face and reminds him he is part of something bigger here.

This will be Howard’s third team in as many seasons. He said he’d love to finish his career as a Hornet.

The extent he listens to what Clifford expects will go a long way in deciding that.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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