It’s officially “grand opening, grand closing” on the Dwight Howard era in Atlanta.
The Hawks have traded Howard and the No. 31 pick in Thursday’s draft to the Hornets in exchange for center Miles Plumlee, guard Marco Belinelli and the No. 41 pick. There’s no kind way to put this: the return package for Howard, an eight-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, is shockingly weak. Atlanta’s willingness to deal him less than one year after signing him as a free agent only further elucidates Howard’s fall from being one of the league’s top players to one with limited trade value.
Let’s grade the trade.
Atlanta’s strategy in recent years has been to do its best to keep rolling along with respectable seasons in the face of serious roster turnover. Initially, Howard fit that plan perfectly, serving as a fallback option when Al Horford bolted for Boston and helping Atlanta reach the playoffs for the 10th straight season. But the Hawks hired new GM Travis Schlenk last month, and he clearly concluded that a 31-year-old center with a history of injury issues, personality conflicts and an over-inflated sense of his offensive worth, and who is owed $47 million combined over the next two seasons, was not a key piece of Atlanta’s long-term plan.
That’s a very reasonable conclusion. After all, All-Star forward Paul Millsap might bolt in free agency, and the Hawks’ other key players (Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince and others) are far younger than Howard, who is now at least five seasons removed from his prime. There’s also the matter of coach Mike Budenholzer’s decision to cut Howard’s role in the playoffs, especially late in games. Generally speaking, if a team’s highest-paid player can’t stay on the court during crunch time in the postseason he should be considered fully available in trade talks.
But there’s a difference between “fully available” and “worth ditching him no matter what, even if it means taking back one of the worst values in the league and moving back in the draft order.” In return for shedding Howard’s salary, Atlanta has agreed to take on Plumlee, who averaged just 2.5 points and 2.1 rebounds in less than 500 minutes last season. Sure, Howard was expensive and a weird fit, but he did average 13.5 PPG and 12.7 RPG while playing big minutes for a top-five defense. Plumlee’s claim to fame–in all seriousness–is that his “untradeable” contract has now been traded twice in less than six months. While the first year of Plumlee’s preposterous four-year, $50 million contract is now complete, the Hawks will still be paying him through 2019-20. And don’t even try to get excited about a change of scenery: Plumlee is 28 and on his fifth team. The scenery isn’t the issue.
By exchanging Howard’s salary for Plumlee’s and Belinelli’s, Atlanta will save roughly $4 million in payroll for next year. If Millsap leaves this summer, those savings will only serve to make the Hawks a cheaper bad team. If Millsap stays, it remains to be seen how the Hawks plan to fill their center minutes and fill out a rotation that’s lacking in difference-makers. Are they really going to do better than landing Howard in free agency after years of failed pursuits and little assembled talent to sell to prospective signees?
In sum, Atlanta traded out an expensive impact player for an expensive non-impact player, it dropped 10 spots in the draft order, it took on an extra year of eight-figure commitments to Plumlee, and it created a hole in the middle. There’s definitely value in being free of Howard’s moodiness and offensive fit issues, but not that much value. Millsap should run away to a real contender as quickly as possible and not look back.
The Hornets were so desperate for interior help that they traded for Plumlee and his $50 million deal back in February. To then flip Plumlee for Howard, who has ties with Hornets coach Steve Clifford dating back to their shared time with the Magic, counts as a win. Clifford has designed elite inside-out defenses in the past, he should be able to coax the most effective possible play out of Howard, and he should have the luxury of scaling back Howard’s minutes to ensure his energy and activity levels remain as high as possible.
But it’s never quite that simple with Howard, whose career has been totally derailed over the last half-decade. Charlotte will mark his fifth team since 2012, and he has quickly worn out his welcome at virtually every stop. The trickiest part of acclimating Howard will be determining his proper role relative to Cody Zeller. Last season, the Hornets were excellent with Zeller on the court (+5.4 net rating) and dreadful without him (-3.6), and deploying Zeller as a starting stretch five was a reliable winner.
Enter Howard, who is older, more experienced, and more physical than Zeller while earning nearly twice as much as his new teammate. In an ideal world, Howard would embrace a back-up role and enjoy easier match-ups with overmatched second-unit opponents. But is he ready for that? Clifford could try to bridge the gap by starting Howard and Zeller together, but that would inevitably compromise the precious spacing that has helped fuel Charlotte’s improved offense over the past two seasons. Remember, Zeller is comfortable moving around on the perimeter but he lacks three-point range, making him a far better fit as a stretch five than a stretch four.
Taking on Howard’s contract isn’t a major concern for the Hornets, who generally struggle to compete for impact free agents and are ostensibly in “win now” mode after making meaningful contractual commitments to Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Zeller in recent years. Howard’s presence should add a level of stability to Charlotte’s frontline if injury issues resurface, and that alone could be enough to bump the Hornets back into the East’s playoff picture given how dismally they fared without Zeller last season. Meanwhile, losing Belinelli is a forgettable footnote, as Charlotte played virtually identically with and without him last year.
If Clifford can’t pull quality contributions from Howard or if they don’t see eye-to-eye on fit and role issues, the NBA internet may well be back here again next year dissecting Charlotte’s decision to ship out Howard’s expiring contract. In the meantime, let’s give a polite golf clap to Hornets GM Rich Cho for the draft pick swap, which amounts to a cherry on top.