Scott Fowler

Here’s why the Charlotte Hornets were so desperate to get rid of Dwight Howard

Charlotte's Dwight Howard (12) had big statistics in his lone season for the Hornets, but the team's won-loss record remained exactly the same.
Charlotte's Dwight Howard (12) had big statistics in his lone season for the Hornets, but the team's won-loss record remained exactly the same. AP

So who is Timofey Mozgov and how does he fit in with the Charlotte Hornets' rotation?

The short answer: I don’t think he really does.

And that makes you realize how much the Hornets wanted to end The Great Dwight Howard Experiment after only one year, shipping him to the Brooklyn Nets in a trade first reported by ESPN and confirmed by the Charlotte Observer.

Like Howard, Mozgov is a traditional, back-to-the-basket center in his early 30s in an NBA in which almost everyone else is now a 3-point-shooting greyhound. Like Howard but even more so, Mozgov is a plodder who is ridiculously overpaid – and he’s got two years left on his bad contract, while Howard only has one.

But unlike Howard, Mozgov should not be a locker-room issue.

This is a trade that is very hard to get excited about for any Charlotte Hornets fan – and I’m not excited about it, either. I wish for the fans’ sake that the Hornets could have gotten more for Howard – who was traded from Charlotte exactly a year after the day he was traded to Charlotte. Then again, I’m not at all sorry to see him go, because the shotgun marriage of Howard to the Hornets just didn’t work.

Timofey Mozgov's best years in the NBA came in Cleveland, which led to the four-year, $64-million contract he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers and then-general manager Mitch Kupchak in the summer of 2016. This dunk against the Hornets was in 2015. Nell Redmond AP

As for the trade itself, the only way that works for the Hornets is in an “addition by subtraction” sort of way.

Howard compiled great numbers last season for Charlotte (16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game) and yet he made absolutely no difference on the Hornets’ bottom line. The team finished 36-46 the year before he came, and it finished an identical 36-46 in his one season in Charlotte. Howard is slated to make $23.8 million this season on an expiring contract.

Mozgov barely played in Brooklyn in the latter half of the year for a very bad Nets team, and he averaged only 4.2 points and 2.1 rebounds when he did. The 31-year-old Russian was publicly unhappy about how little he was used.

Mozgov has an awful contract – a deal that was originally signed off on by Mitch Kupchak when he was with the Los Angeles Lakers in the free-agent frenzy of 2016.

And yet the Hornets were willing to take back that deal, which still has two years and almost $33 million left on it, with Kupchak as their new general manager. They did so and got rid of Howard, grabbed a couple of second-round draft picks - one, the No. 45 pick, will be in play in Thursday night’s NBA draft - and likely avoided the luxury tax this season. The trade itself likely won't be made official until July, but it has been agreed to by all parties.

It shows you how much they wanted Howard out. But why?

A 'terrible' screen setter

I was speaking to a team source in midseason – this was months before the Howard trade – and he told me of the Hornets players’ frustration that Howard simply wouldn’t run the play that was called, sometimes in key last-minute situations.

Also, for a man with a superhero body, Howard’s screen-setting was often “terrible,” according to the source. Howard and former coach Steve Clifford – who was always seen as “The Howard Whisperer” – also did not have nearly as perfect a relationship as was advertised and had at least one notable confrontation. And I saw firsthand some of the eye-rolling that Howard’s teammates did when they spoke about him.

For all that, Howard had a great year statistically and won some games for Charlotte. The high point came against the same Brooklyn Nets, who will now employ Howard. In March, Howard had an astounding 32 points and 30 rebounds against Brooklyn, joining Kevin Love as the only player to post a 30-30 game in the past 35 years (Mozgov didn’t play in that one; he played in less than half the Nets' games last season for a team that went 28-54).

But Howard never consistently got on the same page as Nic Batum, the Hornets’ other highest-paid player and a facilitator whose pick-and-roll game was at odds with the low post isolation moves that Howard preferred.

Zeller should benefit

The Hornets’ disenchantment with Howard was predictable in many ways, in large part because it has happened before all over the NBA. Howard, 32, will now join his fourth team in his past four NBA seasons.

Kupchak and new coach James Borrego are obviously in rebuilding mode, and another big trade could certainly happen within hours. For Borrego, this is probably a good thing – he doesn’t have to worry about a high-maintenance center who needs major minutes to be kept happy. He can play faster, start Cody Zeller at center - Zeller can run rim to rim as well as almost any center in the NBA - bring Mozgov off the bench and be done with it.

But I worry that all this does for the Hornets is to rob Peter to pay Paul. The Hornets got rid of a huge contract, yes, but they have inherited a player with much less skill whose contract will handicap them in free agency not only this summer but in the summer of 2019, too.

What the Hornets did, ultimately, was tell Howard to grab his Superman cape and leave the building.

It makes no sense in a mathematical sort of way.

But in a chemistry sort of way, it does.