ON THE NBA
Tim Bontemps writes that Dwight Howard makes sense for the Wizards but is still far from a sure thing.
las vegas — The idea of Dwight Howard — eighttime all-star, three-time defensive player of the year and still a quality starting center — joining the Washington Wizards was met by league executives here at the NBA Summer League with a mix of shrugs, derision and caution.
That the move isn’t being universally applauded as a good piece of business is a telling sign of the potential Faustian bargain Washington might be about to enter into when Howard officially clears waivers Monday at 5 p.m. Eastern time.
The price to sign Howard — the full taxpayer’s mid-level exception for this season ($5.3 million), plus a player option for next, as league sources confirmed — was more than he was expected to receive but far from exorbitant. The Wizards see it as the cost of doing business for a player who generated significant interest from around the league.
From a roster standpoint, Washington still isn’t going past 14 roster spots barring an unexpected turn of events, so if Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who is set to pay the luxury tax for the second straight season, is willing to foot the bill, there is no opportunity cost in adding Howard.
And measuring solely by production, there is little doubt Howard will be worth the contract he is about to receive. He played 81 games for the Charlotte Hornets last season — the most he has played since the 2009-10 campaign, when he was still in Orlando — and averaged 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 30 minutes.
But production and money aren’t the reasons Howard will be on his fourth team in four seasons (and his fifth if you count the two hours he was with the Brooklyn Nets on Friday afternoon). Howard, 32, is again changing addresses because of everything that comes with having him around — most notably the trail of broken locker rooms he has left in his wake.
There was his messy exit from Orlando six years ago, which included the legendary scene of then-Magic coach Stan Van Gundy speaking openly about Howard wanting him gone — only for Howard unwittingly to wander by a few moments later and pretend everything was fine.
That was followed by a year full of drama with the Lakers in Los Angeles, where Howard and Kobe Bryant constantly feuded. Then came a three-year stint with the Houston Rockets that saw his relationship with James Harden disintegrate and led to Howard leaving as a free agent in 2016. He returned home to Atlanta, where he lasted all of one season with the Hawks before being sent packing by General Manager Travis Schlenk in one of Schlenk’s first moves in charge of the team. A year later, Mitch Kupchak did the same to Howard in one of his first acts as general manager of the Hornets. Anyone see a trend here? All of this is what made Wizards star John Wall’s comments to The Washington Post’s Candace Buckner about Howard’s past — and whether Howard can change his reputation as a divisive locker room figure — all the more fascinating.
“I can’t force him. He has to want to be able to change on his own,” Wall said. “But I think he just helps our team, and that’s why he was probably the best center we could probably get at the time for our team.”
Herein lies the conundrum that is Howard at this stage of his career and what makes him one of the oddest stars the NBA has had in recent years. He will assuredly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer — and deservedly so. His résumé is unassailable. But Howard’s off-court issues are so pronounced and so well known that many in the league refuse to look past them.
Ask people both near and far from Howard’s orbit, and they will say the same thing: If he will stop insisting on getting post touches, on trying to live up to the ridiculous criticisms Shaquille O’Neal has lobbed in his direction over the years and focus on what he remains elite at — setting screens and rolling to the rim offensively, grabbing rebounds and protecting the rim defensively — then this could work out splendidly for Howard and the Wizards. If not? Well, this probably will go as his last few stops have.
But as Wall said, Howard has to want to change those aspects of his game. Does he? Only time will tell.
Further, as Wall also pointed out, the Wizards didn’t have much of a choice when considering this move. Howard is easily the best center they could have gotten after trading away Marcin Gortat. While it seems unlikely Ian Mahinmi will be waived and his salary stretched to lessen Washington’s tax burden — though the possibility exists until Sept. 1 — the idea of him starting next season for the Wizards was unacceptable for a team hoping to return to the latter stages of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
If Howard has the right approach, he could help Washington get there.
The Wizards knew that. Wall and Bradley Beal recruited Howard personally, and the team was united in wanting him to be part of it.
But will that remain the case by, say, January? Remember, the Wizards felt the need to move on from Gortat, a center who didn’t mind voicing his displeasure with things, less than two weeks ago after his feuds with Wall went past the point of no return. Is there a reason to think this relationship will be different?
“Let’s see how that plays out,” one league executive said Friday, offering skepticism the WallHoward pairing would end well. Another predicted Howard would be more of a problem than Gortat ever was.
The Wizards and Howard, at this point, are made for each other. Washington is coming off a thoroughly disappointing season, one that saw the Wizards go from the cusp of an Eastern Conference finals appearance two years ago to being the eighth seed and seeing their season end in the first round. Howard needs a strong season — sans drama — to change the way decision-makers look at him if he wants any hope of a big payday next summer.
Now they have each other. We will see how long the honeymoon lasts.
Dwight Howard can still produce at 32, but he has earned a reputation as a divisive locker room figure.