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NBA PM: Hornets Betting On Howard

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In July 2016, center Dwight Howard signed with the Atlanta Hawks. In a tear-filled press conference, an emotional Howard showed how much he appreciated the opportunity to come home to Atlanta and play for the Hawks. It didn’t hurt that the Hawks offered a three-year, $70.5 million contract to do so. Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last long as neither the Hawks nor Howard played up to expectations, which led to an unexpected change of course.

On June 20, 2017, the Hawks traded Howard and a 2017 second round pick (No. 31) to the Charlotte Hornets for center Miles Plumlee, shooting guard Marco Belinelli and a 2017 second round pick (No. 41). The hope for the Hornets is that Howard is the missing piece the team needs in order to get to the next level. This would translate into making the playoffs after coming up just short last season and having made it the season before that.

Why is this trade so important? The Hornets need to improve and revitalize the team with new energy – especially on defense. As covered in this space last season, head coach Steve Clifford’s team had maintained a top 10 defense but they were still giving up more points per game compared to the season prior. In addition, the team’s defense had been especially insufficient in late game situations.

If the trade does significantly improve the team, it will be a coup for a franchise that wants to win badly but has been hamstrung by big contracts that haven’t added up to a consistent winning formula.

But haven’t we heard this before? Many fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets and Hawks will gladly explain all the reasons why Howard didn’t work out for their respective team and they likely won’t hesitate to place much of the blame at Howard’s feet. Howard spoke to Hornet’s Director of Interactive Marketing Matt Rochinski after being introduced to the media and addressed these issues.

“They [fans] talk real negative about a player when they leave a city, stuff like that, or get traded. For the fans here to say that this is a prayer being answered and stuff like that, you know it means a lot,” Howard said.

Howard has been criticized in the past for being too sensitive or susceptible to outside criticisms. On the flip side, Howard did not hesitate to talk about how much he felt embraced by his new city. When asked why he thought this opportunity would work out better than previous opportunities, he pointed to a couple of factors. Howard specifically responded to whether success is tied to being in the right place, at the right time. Howard spoke about this concept generally and specifically as to himself.

“It is always about that [right place, right time]. It’s a discussion that NBA players have all the time. It’s the right system, the right opportunity. There’s a lot of guys that have been in the league who are really great talents but didn’t really have the right opportunity,” Howard stated. “Once you get it [the right opportunity], you have to take full advantage of it.”

The Hornets and Howard are hoping that he takes full advantage of it. Although Howard hasn’t missed much playing time the last few years, he has been slowed down due to nagging injuries, aging, and issues relating to chemistry and his fit with his past teams. These factors have contributed to decreased scoring and overall diminished impact. Howard addressed this as well.

“One. I’m back in a healthy spot, you know, as far as my body. And mentally, and spiritually. Two. Opportunity, you know, this is a great opportunity. Three. It’s the system,” Howard stated.

If Howard remains not only injury free but motivated as well, this could end up being a tremendous acquisition. In his prime, Howard nabbed three straight defensive player of the year awards but has seen his defense sag over the years. It is established that Clifford is a defense-first coach and Howard should fit in if he does his best to anchor a Hornet’s defense that lacked consistency in the post last year.

The system Howard refers to may look a lot like the one that the Orlando Magic ran with Howard when Howard experienced the most success in his NBA career, both personally and team wise. Clifford was a part of those teams and may have the necessary pieces to recreate this system. Making this system work begins with a capable point guard who can run an effective pick-and-roll with Howard, can score, pass to Howard (who should be diving hard to the rim) or hit an open shooter. All-Star Point guard Kemba Walker is that type of guard and Howard is excited to team up with him.

“Man this guy [Walker] has what it takes,” Howard exclaimed. “Can’t wait to get out in the pick-and-roll with him.”

Howard’s desired system relied on a point guard like Walker and capable wings who can score from the outside, facilitate or keep the ball moving. Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are versatile and talented forwards who should fit well alongside Walker and Howard. Batum is a savvy passer, scorer and defender who is paid well at $25 million to be a second-star type of player. Williams has developed into an effective veteran wing who can do a little bit of everything for the team. Kidd-Gilchrist is an elite defender but has struggled with injuries and his jump shot. The hope is that Kidd-Gilchrist can address these issues and take the next step in his development, which would be a major boost for the team.

The Hornets are betting that this trade improves their team significantly without too much cost. The trade allowed the two teams to swap second round picks (No. 31 and No. 41), with the Hornets getting the better of the two. In addition, the Hornets were forced to surrender Belinelli whom they had acquired from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for their 2016 first round draft pick (No. 22).

One player that helps to ease that sting is Hornets rookie Malik Monk, who was selected by the Hornets with the 11th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Monk offers the Hornets an athletic wing who can handle the ball, be an effective scorer and hit three-point shots, skills that are key when playing with Howard. Monk’s coaches and teammates will need to stay on the Kentucky product to make sure his defensive skill and impact keeps pace with his offensive talents. While Monk will likely struggle through the early growing pains that all NBA players his age go through, he should be a nice addition to a team that could use additional help on the wing.

Assuming Howard is relatively healthy and motivated, the system comes into place and the team’s defense plays up to Clifford’s standards, the Hornets may be poised for an unexpected level of success in a depleted and rebuilding Eastern Conference next season. Howard has watched many other teams win at a high level over the years, including his Finals opponent when the Magic fell to the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals. He is motivated to change his and his new team’s circumstances for the better.

“It hurts, it hurts to see someone else win and holding up the trophy, to see the confetti and watch somebody have a parade. And you’re like, man, I want to experience that part of it. I was right there, I’ve tasted it. I want to taste it again,” Howard stated. “I want this city [Charlotte] to feel that.”

Charlotte took a bet that Howard can lead them to success. Let’s see if the risk was worth the reward.

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About James Blancarte

James Blancarte

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.