Here we are, again: Dwight Howard is switching teams for the fourth straight offseason. After failing to live up to expectations as a franchise cornerstone with the Rockets, flopping as a hometown hero with the Hawks, and failing to make an impact as a veteran leader with the Hornets (lol), Howard has arrived at the bleakest stage of his career. The Hornets traded Howard to the Nets today in exchange for Timofey Mozgov and a pair of second-round picks. The way that Woj frames the trade says it all. The value of Howard in the 2018-19 season is not so much because of what “Dwight Howard: Basketball Player” can do, but rather what “Dwight Howard: Contract Figure” is worth.
Howard is in the final year of a three-year, $70.5 million contract he signed with the Hawks in 2016, while Mozgov has two seasons left on a disastrous four-year, $64 million he signed with the Lakers that same offseason. The Nets are probably not going to make the playoffs next year, so Howard’s main contribution to the team will be leaving it sooner than Mozgov would have and thus allowing the Nets to sign better players next summer. It’s not that Howard has completely stopped being an unproductive player, either. On the court last year, Howard had his best season since his final All-Star campaign in 2013-14, averaging 16.6 points, 12.5 boards, and a block and a half. He can still put up numbers. It just doesn’t matter.
For one, he is increasingly out of step with the direction of the league, and in Charlotte he clogged up the middle, kept Kemba Walker and other Hornets perimeter players from getting to the rim as often, and slowed things down too much for a team that wanted to run. In Brooklyn, he should probably be backing up Jarrett Allen, since the second-year center is one of the Nets’ only promising young players and can’t play the power forward. Howard has only come off the bench once in 1,432 career games, and he refused to do so last season. It’s hard to know how the rotation will shake out in Brooklyn, but it is easy to imagine ways that Howard might object to it.
New Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak was the man who signed Mozgov to that albatross of a deal mere moments after the salary cap expanded. The deal was transparently a bad idea from the start and wound up being odious enough that getting it off their books and onto Brooklyn’s ultimately cost the Lakers D’Angelo Russell as well. But this very bad deal is apparently not as bad to the Hornets as keeping Howard in their locker room. Ironically enough, the Hornets traded for Howard one year ago today in order to distance themselves from Miles Plumlee’s very bad contract, and they’ve now taken on a worse deal to get him out the paint. The two second-round picks are nice, though it’s clear from Kupchak’s comments and the locker room mood that getting rid of Howard was a priority (this is nothing new).
The structural reasons to be optimistic about Howard’s fit with the Nets—Kenny Atkinson appears to be a good coach, Spencer Dinwiddie is really blossoming—are unfortunately outweighed by all the negatives that he represents simply by dint of being himself. Dwight Howard was always a headache, but he used to be productive enough to make up for it. Now that his back is fully calcified and he’s slowed down from “all-world” to “pretty good,” he’s just not worth it. Howard requires a specific sort of team around him to win if he’s a foundational player, and he’s no longer the superstar he was in Orlando. It was only six years ago that he tried to engineer a move to join Deron Williams in New Jersey. Now that same move is more or less a joke.
Howard has been a laughingstock for years, and was widely perceived as kind of a weird clown even when he was still one of the league’s most productive big men. The passage of time and a bad back did a number on that last part, but it’s still wild how precipitously Howard’s perceived value fallen. Even two years ago, it didn’t seem like Dwight would become a salary dump player this soon. A graceful decline was never guaranteed—he’s not that graceful a personality, for one—but Howard is a Hall of Famer, and talented enough that some sort of late-career renaissance isn’t wholly inconceivable. He went for 32 and 30 in a game just last season.
Dwight Howard is not bad, per se, he’s just a weird dick whose preferred style of play is no longer in fashion. It’s not like Howard is going to have to retire after this deal expires, but it’s fair to say that he hasn’t really shown that he has a place as a star or perhaps even a starter in today’s NBA. The prospect of a productive Dwight Howard isn’t that far fetched, although it’s hard to see how it would happen with the Nets. But, again, it just doesn’t seem to matter much. At least he’ll have a chance to check out SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.