“I’m happy to be home,” said Dwight Howard during his Atlanta Hawks introductory press conference last July.
“I know I am in a totally different place physically, mentally and spiritually than I was three years ago. This is a really new beginning for me. I’m happy to share it with my loved ones,” Howard continued before allowing a few tears to dance down his cheek.
It was in this moment that the much maligned Howard seemed rejuvenated. Howard, who hails from Atlanta, surely assumed that inking a three-year $70.5 million deal with his hometown team would ensure his career the recalibration it needed after some rather tumultuous stops in Los Angeles and Houston.
This proved to be quite the contrary as Howard’s season was more Elm Street than Dream, unraveling in a fashion the 13-year veteran did not anticipate.
Howard clashed with Hawks starting point guard Dennis Schroder, attempted the third-lowest amount of field goals of his career and found it tough to fit in the Spurs-like system Atlanta runs, one predicated upon space, pace, shooting, and movement.
After the Hawks were eliminated in the first round by the Washington Wizards, a series in which the big man played only 16 of a possible 72 fourth quarter minutes, Howard vented the frustrations that coalesced throughout the course of his wayward season in his exit interview.
“It was very difficult,” Howard said Saturday. “I want to play. I want to be out on the floor. I want to make a difference. I want to make an impact, and I can’t do that on the bench.”
“It hurts,” Howard said. “I’m sure if you wrote the best stories in the world and nobody read your stories and they told you to stop writing and you saw somebody else’s story that wasn’t as good as yours, I’m pretty sure you’d be pissed, too. That’s how it is in basketball.”
Evidently, the Hawks didn’t want to dedicate any time to mending these on-court issues with Howard, instead deciding to trade him and the No. 31 overall pick to the Charlotte Hornets for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli, and the No. 41 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Howard, an eight-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA First Team member, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner and a former top-five NBA player was shipped out of Atlanta for nothing. Michael Jordan and the Hornets’ brass must’ve pulled up to the negotiations like this:
It’s obvious Howard is on the downswing of his career, but to see his value be driven so low is kind of jarring. Maybe it’s because of the weight the name “Dwight Howard” used to hold. A respected, two-way behemoth with the physical tools to become a true all-timer at center moved for pennies.
Homecomings are supposed to be happy, warming and spirited. The city is supposed to embrace their hero with open arms and ride with them through thick-and-thin. Howard surmised that playing in his backyard would put his basketball spirit at ease, but it merely served as another dark chapter in what has become his story.
In Howard, the Hornets are still getting an interior intimidator and elite rebounder, one in which was fourth in boards per game this season at 10.7. Howard also posted the highest rebounding percentage of his career at 23.5% which will help a Charlotte team that was below average in rebounds per game, while also clocking in at No. 20 in rebound percentage (49.5%).
Don’t be fooled by Howard’s career-low 1.2 blocks per game this year either. Howard may not have recorded a block in many defensive scenarios, but he did a top-notch job of protecting the rim for Atlanta. The Hawks were fifth in defensive field goal percentage at the rim (51.3%), while the Hornets lagged behind at 19 with a percentage of 54.1. Howard’s presence will boost that mark for Charlotte.
Here’s what most important for Howard though: he has a chance to truly feel comfortable in Charlotte, as he’ll be under the tutelage of Steve Clifford. Clifford coached Howard as an assistant for six seasons with both the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, and they forged a relationship in which Howard can trust, something that’s important for a guy who is accused of being fragile mentally and seems to funk up the locker room with his persona.
“I know what he has to do to play well,” Clifford said Wednesday. “He understands that I know him. I know his game. Being around him in different settings I have a feel for what he likes to do. … There is no reason he can’t get back to playing at a really high level.”
Can Howard return to that All-Star plateau? At 31 and soon to be 32, that seems unlikely, but Charlotte may supply him with his best chance to do so and to repair the fractured reputation he’s established over these past several seasons. Howard is still of service and will bolster a Hornets starting five that is now looking pretty formidable.
Kemba Walker/Nicolas Batum/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist/Marvin Williams and Howard isn’t too shabby of a starting squad, the question is will the Hornets be able to squeeze out enough offense with two guys who aren’t great on that end occupying big minutes.
Howard has two years left on the $74 million contract he signed with the Hawks last offseason, and it would be nice to see him finish out that deal and make Charlotte his home for the remainder of his career. The backend of Howard’s career has been hectic. Whether that’s self-induced or due to circumstance is another argument, but I for one would like Howard’s Hall of Fame career to be given the closure it’s deserving of.
As for the Hawks, it seems as if they’re heading towards the primitive stages of a rebuild. A full dip in the renovation pool would come if the team chooses to move on from Paul Millsap, who is slated to hit unrestricted free agency in July. At this point in time, it doesn’t seem plausible that Atlanta extends Millsap an offer, as they look to re-tool in the post-Jeff Teague/Al Horford/Millsap era. Plumlee is signed for $12.5 million through 2020 and I doubt he finishes out the duration of that deal with the Hawks. Belinelli is a nice veteran, sharpshooter that hits free agency next summer.
It’ll be interesting to see what direction both parties go as time creeps along. Howard will look to salvage the remainder of what career he has left, while the Hawks, an Eastern Conference playoff staple, may not be back in the postseason for awhile. It’s funny how quickly things can change.