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Straight shooting: Hornets writers respond to the Wizards signing Dwight Howard

Just don’t say they didn’t tell you so

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard is the most athletic big man Washington’s had since… Wes Unseld, maybe? Well – definitely since JaVale McGee. He has meat on his bones, and muscles on muscles – and three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Look at these stats: 32 points and 30 rebounds. Sure, it was against the Brooklyn Nets, but washed up players don’t drop numbers like that.

Admittedly, I didn’t watch the Charlotte Hornets play often this past season. I was busy watching another Southeast Division team underperform. But these highlights – they’re convincing.

Against better judgment, I’ve talked myself into countless players I knew wouldn’t pan out in the past. And I did it – at least for thirty or so minutes while the highlight reel was running – again when the Wizards got Howard.

This time, though, I smartened up and reached out to a few writers who’ve analyzed Howard’s game beyond the 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds he posted last season. The basic and advanced numbers tell a story, but none of it could speak to how he attained them – or what kind of person he is in the locker room, which might be even more important than his on-court production.

Nick Denning (@nickdenning), editor of SB Nation’s Charlotte Hornets blog At The Hive, and Spencer Percy (@QCHSpencer), managing editor of ESPN True Hoop’s Queen City Hoops, provided the insight to the questions currently pending answers.

With this, you – and I – should know who and what is coming to Washington, avoiding any possible disappointment (or at least the ability to say “I told ya so” if things don’t…you know…work out).

What were your initial thoughts when you found out Dwight Howard was going to be the Hornets’ new starting center and how can you compare those thoughts to when you found out he was no longer a member of the team?

Nick: Initially, I was a bit excited. They traded next to nothing to get him, and, on paper, it appeared Charlotte had upgraded the center spot. Financially, it meant taking on more salary but for one less season than Miles Plumlee, who they traded away.

Looking back, I think I ignored that Howard simply wasn’t a good fit for the Hornets, and I naively assumed he wouldn’t be an issue in the locker room.

Spencer: When the Dwight Howard trade took place last summer, it appeared as an obvious win for Charlotte. Ex-Hornets GM, Rich Cho, was able to dump quite possibly the worst contract in the NBA at the time, Miles Plumlee, for a more productive player at that position with fewer years remaining on his deal. It was also reported that Atlanta was that desperate to move on from Dwight, so I assumed they paid a premium to do so. All would be better under his old coach and friend, Steve Clifford...

...It was anything and everything under the sun but that. When the trade was announced that Dwight was being shipped to Brooklyn two weeks ago, I was thrilled. It felt like I had regained a portion of my basketball fan sanity. I wouldn’t say the Hornets won the deal, as they effectively traded for something similar to the original Miles Plumlee contract they worked so diligently to rid themselves of a year prior, but Dwight is gone. As depressing as that is, it’s all that matters to me.

Did you spend any time convincing yourself that Howard was still productive before/during his time with the Hornets – because I’ve been watching a lot of highlights, and, man, he showed some flashes! Am I setting myself up for disappointment?

Nick: He can still play, that’s undeniable, and a big part of that was that he stayed healthy for what feels like the first time in years. But looking back, a lot of it didn’t mean a whole lot. He was productive from an individual standpoint and produced dozens of highlight-worthy plays, but it didn’t translate to wins nearly enough. It’s like that meme going around where a team makes an exciting play capped off by a knocked down 3-pointer or flashy dunk, but then the score reads the team down by 50. The dunks, blocks, and one-man fastbreaks were fun at times, but the Hornets still ended up losing by 11.

Spencer: Ben, unfortunately, you are indeed setting yourself up. Dwight isn’t anything close to the athlete he was in his prime. He’s still capable of finishing a thunderous dunk when he generates an undeterred head of steam towards the rim. Outside of that, Dwight offers little positive value to any aspect of the game for his team.

Offensively, you still have to feed Dwight around the basket. Only LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Embiid finished with more post-up attempts per game in the NBA last season. Averaging 6.2 post-ups per game, Dwight managed to convert 0.83 points per possession on this play-type - a mark that placed him in the 39th percentile. You could say that’s a very inefficient way of trying to score the ball. Charlotte continued to give Dwight post-touches throughout the season and it truly became maddening. It felt as if every ounce of offensive synergy that Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller had created over the two season prior had been drained.

Defensively, Dwight refused to give consistent energy. He never came anywhere close to the level of the screen when guarding pick-and-rolls, consistently leaving his teammate guarding the ball (usually Kemba) out to dry. Dwight also sparingly “protected the rim”. If he wasn’t able to load up before jumping and spike a shot into the first row, he would simply leave his arms by his side and instead bark at one of his teammates for what he perceived to be a blown assignment. Next to John Wall, who has some defensive effort issues himself, that could be a problem.

Speaking of flashes – Howard had some outstanding games last year (32 and 30 against the Nets, ironically, and 25 and 20 against the T-Wolves, as a few examples). Were they a product of stat padding or was he truly that dominant at times?

Nick: There was maybe a little bit of stat padding, as in his teammates realized there was little point going for some rebounds if Howard was in the area, but there are few players even capable of those kinds of nights, so he gets the credit. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got one or two of those next season.

Spencer: If Dwight wanted to be a consistently impactful player, he could be. Those specific games you mentioned are a testament to that. There was certainly tons of stat-padding going on, as Dwight would regularly steal rebounds from teammates on the defensive end.

He’s 32 – no one is expecting the Wizards to get the Magic-version of Howard. But how good is he, really? What are his biggest attributes/flaws?

Nick: He’s still a handful to guard, and he appears to be in the best shape in years. Offensively, he is dangerous on the lob, and I’d wager John Wall will be ecstatic to throw a few to him. His effort rebounding the ball will help create second-chance opportunities, and he’ll help securing more defensive stops as well.

But the coaching staff has to get him to stop holding onto the damn ball in the post. Dwight can be an effective post scorer when he immediately attacks the hoop after getting the ball, but too often last season the Hornets went to him in the post and he’d hold it for 5-10 seconds before attempting a shot. It slowed down the offense and neutralized the ball movement, and by extension made Nicolas Batum less effective as a playmaker.

He also can’t or refuses to defend outside of 15 feet, and that contributed to Charlotte’s declining defense.

Spencer: Dwight’s greatest attribute is his ability to finish above the rim. At age 32, he’s still capable of being a problem rolling to the rim off of pick-and-roll plays. The problem is that he won’t roll hard, or even at all, on many occasions. Dwight wants the ball on the block - I’m fairly certain he perceives himself as a Hakeem-esque type of post player. Not kidding.

Of all the aforementioned flaws, Dwight’s ultimate downfall is his self-perception. This skewed outlook bleeds into every aspect of his game and personality, and it has a profound (negative) effect on locker rooms he’s a part of.

By almost all accounts, Howard wasn’t the best teammate during his last days as a Magic, Laker or Rocket. His time as a Hawk was rather irrelevant, as was the case in Charlotte. Marcin Gortat was traded in part because of locker room concerns. How was Howard as a teammate in Charlotte?

Nick: During the season, we heard very little rumblings of issues. Outside of Batum cryptically stating that every player needed to play for the “name on the front, not the name on the back” and former head Coach Steve Clifford describing certain players as essentially selfish, the Hornets avoided a colossal event like we’ve seen in the past with Howard.

Once he was traded, however, reports came out that the locker room was tired of him. It sounds as if he does a lot of little things, that wear on players over time. This was true before joining Charlotte, but part me thought it would be different. Steve Clifford believed him, and he would play with a group of players that, for the most part, are well liked. With the reports that have come out since, though, it appears both the coaches and players were over him. If you want a particularly damning report, listen to Brendan Haywood talk about Howard on Sirius XM. It’s sobering stuff.

Spencer: Feel like I’ve already answered this question, but if Gortat was traded due to locker room concerns and his inability to get along with John Wall, I don’t think Wizards fans should be expecting vast improvement in that area when Dwight arrives in D.C.

How much will a change of scenery help Howard at this point? He’s played with All-Stars in the past, but it’s been a while since he’s played with guards like Wall and Beal. How much of a difference will that make?

Nick: I don’t think it matters at this point where he plays. Moving to Charlotte, a low-key, small market team, was supposed to be the change of scenery he needed. Before that, moving to Atlanta, his hometown, was seen as positive as well.

The problem is Dwight. Until or unless he decides to change his attitude and way he plays, he’s going to continue to cause issues. When four straight teams are happy to let him go, and the last two are willing to give him away for little, the problem is pretty clearly on the player, not the teams.

Spencer: I’m numb to the “change of scenery” narrative with Dwight at this stage in his career, and frankly, he should be to. It should help playing with an All-Star backcourt, but if Wall and Beal expect Dwight to simply screen for them and roll hard to the rim then they’re in for a rude awakening. He will demand his touches and those touches will bog down the offense. You can take that to the bank.

From what you saw in Charlotte, what kind of lineups should the Wizards run with to get the most out of Howard – is he going to demand the ball in the post and screw things up, or will he be content with running the floor, rebounding and catching lobs from Wall?

Nick: I believe he could be really effective in pick-and-roll situations. It eliminates the dreaded post-ups, as he’s either going to catch the ball on a lob or catch in a place where he has to immediately make a decision. They ran those for him, but not nearly enough. Surround him with shooters, and get him to run the floor, and keep the post-ups to a minimum. He just better be willing to play at a faster pace (if that’s Washington’s intent) because Charlotte shipped him out because they believed he wouldn’t.

I sincerely hope he can learn from his mistakes, because unlike some of his previous stops he wasn’t generally disliked by the Hornets fanbase, and despite the headaches, he finished the season with a positive net rating. It’s really all on him at this point.

Spencer: With Dwight on the floor, you basically have to space four shooters around him. One of the most notable limitations in Dwight’s game at this stage in his career is his inability to cover much ground. He rarely sprints to set a ball-screen or rolls down the lane with a burst.

He also has a bad habit of not holding ball-screens long enough and then getting in the way when the ball-handler attempts to snake back in another direction on their way to the rim - this happened regularly with Kemba last season. He couldn’t speed off of ball-screens from Dwight and get to the rim like he had with Cody Zeller setting the screen in years past. Dwight is so anxious to roll to the rim and catch the lob, that many times, he doesn’t even actually set a screen. I wouldn’t call it a slip to the rim either. It’s hard to explain and very frustrating. Unfortunately, I think John Wall is in for a long season next to Dwight.