Dwight Howard is many things. Polarizing, imposing, captivating, just to name a few.
His defensive impact might be overlooked and his remaining athleticism underestimated, but he is neither martyr nor patsy. His transition from contender cornerstone to high-profile journeyman, while in part fueled by injuries and lamentable fits, is regression he's earned.
It's important to keep this in mind in the aftermath of his latest relocation.
The Atlanta Hawks flipped Howard and the No. 31 pick to the Charlotte Hornets for Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee and the No. 41 pick, according to The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears and The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski. It's an underwhelming package for a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and eight-time All-Star who, at 31, should still be in his prime. But it's also no surprise.
A poll of eight NBA front office executives conducted by ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz in May indicated the Hawks' "best case" return on Howard would be cap relief and a second-round selection. That's essentially what they got—some financial flexibility now, even more in 2018, a late draft pick and the option of steering into a rebuild without accounting for Howard's age, role and ego.
That Atlanta was so willing to deal Howard, though, is yet another wake-up call in a long line of reality checks. The NBA has changed. Priorities have shifted. Howard has been unable, or unwilling, to maximize his skill set in a brave new world that won't pander to it.
Joining Charlotte gives him another shot at redemption, revival and a final reinvention.
Few if any teams are outfitted to host Howard's last stand, but the Hornets are one of them. And head coach Steve Clifford is a big reason why. He was an assistant when Howard was in Orlando and, per the Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowlerl, has maintained a "soft spot" for the skyscraper ever since.
Rick Bonnell @rick_bonnell
Rich Cho said it was a "big factor" in the trade that Steve Clifford coached Dwight Howard for 6 seasons as an assistant.2017-6-21 15:15:08
"He's a very intelligent player—coverages, schemes," Clifford told reporters after the trade. "He's good with details."
Indeed, the Hornets need someone like Howard. Their defense dropped to 14th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season, down from ninth in 2015-16. With the exception of Cody Zeller, their frontcourt devolved into a revolving door of inconsistency (Frank Kaminsky, Marvin Williams), injuries (Plumlee), randomness (Roy Hibbert) and desperation (the trade for Plumlee).
Reliable rim protection was hard to come by on the best nights. Strong showings from perimeter pests helped minimize enemy opportunities around the basket, but the Hornets finished 19th in point-blank prevention. Howard helps as a quality high-volume paint-protector. He was one of 12 players in 2016-17 to hold opponents to under 49 percent shooting at the iron while contesting at least 400 shots.
Teams will target Howard in the pick-and-roll. Charlotte won't want him switching, and he has trouble walling off nimble-footed bigs. But Clifford assembled a half-decent attack against ball-handlers with Zeller, who poses similar issues, by depending on Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as primary disruptors and surrounding wings to help off shooters. He'll make coverages work with Howard jumping center.
Some of these limitations will be made up for on the offensive end, where Howard remains an elite diver. Charlotte's rim-runners shot 48.4 percent out of the pick-and-roll this past year—close to a bottom-10 mark, and unimpressive at best. Howard put down 65.8 percent of his looks in those situations and finished through contact while keeping his turnovers to a manageable volume (10.2 percent).
Batum and Kemba Walker will drool whenever they have the opportunity to run him off screens. Howard opens offensive corridors previously closed to a 14th-place machine that tied too much of its fate to Walker's magic and a strong three-point-attempt ratio. He is the weapon they were supposed to have in Plumlee.
Or rather, he should be.
The thing about Howard these days is that the idea of what can do never aligns with how he conducts himself on the court. It says a lot that Atlanta quickly moved on from him, new front-office regime and all, despite the good vibes that prevailed last fall.
"Charlotte will mark his fifth team since 2012, and he has quickly worn out his welcome at virtually every stop," SI.com's Ben Golliver wrote. "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-5 was a reliable winner."
Is Howard, who turns 32 in December, finally ready to cede playing time and, more notably, status to someone on the come-up? Will he ditch his infatuation with post-ups, and his delusions of being a featured option, to set screens, finish lobs, crash the boards and send back shots at the rim? And can he do all this consistently enough to stay on the floor if and the when the Hornets make the playoffs?
Post-ups won't be available as much in Charlotte. Clifford, unlike Howard, has adapted to today's game. The Hornets were 27th in post-up frequency last year. They won't empower Howard to lose himself in the most inefficient part of his game.
Sheer force once allowed him to dominate with his back to the basket, even when his footwork wasn't on point and his handle was junky. But while he shot almost 48 percent on post-ups with the Hawks, he averaged just 0.84 points per possession, a mark that put him in the 38th percentile.
This sounds familiar, because it's supposed to. It's been one of the foremost knocks against Howard since he was shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers. But Charlotte can be different.
Howard didn't mastermind this outcome. This isn't him leveraging the Orlando Magic into moving him. This isn't him willingly leaving Los Angeles for Houston, or Houston for Atlanta. The Hawks traded him. They dumped him.
He doesn't need to shoot threes, or be The Guy. That's not him. And he can't trick himself into thinking otherwise with Batum and Walker already in place.
A strong regular-season performance in Atlanta was marred by questions about his role in the offense. That shouldn't happen in Charlotte. The Hornets are bringing him in to do what he does best, and to stay in that wheelhouse.
For the first time, he knows he's been acquired to help a team, not headline it. He has to.
If he's ever going to strive for redemption through actual change, Charlotte is the place he'll do it.