ON THE NBA

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Tim.bontemps@wash­post.com

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.

BRANDON WADE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Dwight Howard can still pro­duce at 32, but he has earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a di­vi­sive locker room fig­ure.

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