Scott Fowler

Dwight Howard and the Charlotte Hornets: Can this marriage work?

Dwight Howard, an eight-time NBA all-star, was traded Tuesday night from the Atlanta Hawks to the Charlotte Hornets for Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee.
Dwight Howard, an eight-time NBA all-star, was traded Tuesday night from the Atlanta Hawks to the Charlotte Hornets for Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee. AP

On the eve of the NBA draft, the Charlotte Hornets have pulled off what I think is a heck of a deal to get Dwight Howard.

Yes, I have heard the many cautionary tales surrounding Howard. But did you see what the Hornets had to give up to get him? Basically they got Howard for a couple of packs of Twizzlers.

Well, that analogy only works if Twizzlers cost $23.5 million a year. But Atlanta was obviously desperate to get rid of Howard in this salary-dump move. The Hornets came by at just the right time, showing up about 6:30 a.m. for a garage sale that officially started at 7.

Charlotte had to give up some salary-cap room – but they are already trapped in salary-cap prison anyway.

And they had to give up guard Marco Belinelli, who could occasionally get hot off the bench but was a matador defender and part of a bench unit that has been roundly criticized the entire offseason by the Hornets’ brass. And they were very fortunate to be able to give up center Miles Plumlee and his staggering contract (Plumlee is still owed $37.5 million over the next three seasons).

By playing hot potato with the terrible Plumlee contract that he inconceivably foisted upon himself, Charlotte general manager Rich Cho has tried to make up for the worst trade he has made.

So for that and only that, Cho got Howard – a very overpriced, aging Howard, yes, but c’mon! It’s Dwight Freakin’ Howard!

The guy averaged 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds last season for Atlanta. The eight-time NBA All-Star remains, at age 31, one of the best rim protectors in the league. Even a diminished Howard is an athletic force to be reckoned with, especially if he is surrounded with four shooters the way those old Orlando teams used to do. (What this means for Cody Zeller is another story we will save for another day).

And not only did the Hornets do that, but they also moved up 10 spots with their second pick in the draft, from 41 to 31, in the Howard trade. The Hornets’ first pick – No. 11 – remains intact. We know now that pick will assuredly be a point or shooting guard because they don’t need another big guy any more.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford was an assistant on a number of those Orlando teams and he has always had a soft spot for Howard. I have heard him tell Howard stories a number of times and they mostly end well – his fondness for Howard is very apparent.

“I’m excited about working with Dwight again,” Clifford said in a statement late Tuesday. “He brings a defensive mindset, shot blocking ability and a level of physicality that will be a huge asset for us. We look forward to him continuing his career here in Charlotte.”

Howard, meanwhile, was on Twitter and tweeting with fans about trade rumors when he was traded himself.

At first blush, I like the deal a lot – especially since the Hornets actually improved their draft standing while making it and not giving up any first-round picks.

I know Howard will be playing for his third team in three years in Charlotte and that he is not close to the Shaq-like player he once was. Like all NBA big men, he has found himself at loose ends because of the league’s increasing reliance on “small ball” – where centers sometimes have little to no role on offense. He said something to ESPN this offseason about how he was working on shooting 3-pointers, which makes about as much sense as the Panthers employing quarterback Cam Newton as their kicker. I’m sure Clifford will cure him of that idea.

But Howard’s impact will be greater than Plumlee’s and Belinelli’s impact put together, especially on defense. And in terms of overall guaranteed money, the difference is only about $4 million (the Hornets will owe Howard about $47 million, while the Hawks will owe about $43 million combined for Belinelli and Plumlee. Hey, owner Michael Jordan can afford the difference).

Listen, the Hornets had to do something, and this is one big piece of that something. What they do with two of the first 31 picks Thursday night will be another big piece of that something, and they need to get that right.

But to me, having Howard in the Queen City will be a blast. I could be very wrong, but I just don’t see this going down the all-thorns, no-roses Lance Stephenson path.

Clifford knows how to handle Howard. And Howard, for all his hijinks, surely is going to take this move seriously. He needs to play well in Charlotte to make himself relevant again, and the Hornets need him to play well.

The key is reasonable expectations – Dwight Howard at age 24 isn’t walking through that door. I mean this guy was drafted in 2004, the same year Charlotte took Emeka Okafor.

But I believe the Hornets just got better. And as long as both sides are realistic and willing to compromise, this is a marriage that is going to work.