Photo by Keith Allison for The Sports Capitol

Embrace dwight howard on wizards at your own risk

BY BEN STANDIG | JULY 5, 2018

TSC HEADQUARTERS — Put pro/con thoughts aside for a moment. Landing eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard is a monumental move for the Washington Wizards. They needed a center after trading Marcin Gortat last month (Yes, Twitter trolls, I hear ya. They needed one long before that. Good one). This one is considered a mortal lock for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame and won Olympic gold. He led the league in rebounding five times and never averaged fewer than 10 per game in any of his 14 seasons. Casual fans recognize his name, which helps the box office and local television ratings. Ancient Greek sculptors know those shoulders. Aspects of this expected signing can and will be churned for positivity.

There is another side. “I have a feeling you will have an interesting season,” texted an ominous-sounding source soon after reports emerged of Howard agreeing to a one-year deal with Washington. The Sports Capitol confirmed the agreement first reported by The Athletic on Tuesday.

If I condensed words from other league sources about the acquisition, it might read something like this: The Washington Wizards signing Dwight Howard might be a colossal mistake.

There are numerous articles about Howard’s locker room toxicity just a basic Google search away. Other tales and opinions exist offline. There isn’t malice behind his actions, according to multiple sources who have spent time around Howard. Those same voices independently emphasized his extreme moodiness and on-court rigidity.

I asked one source currently with an Eastern Conference team what I needed to know about Howard now that he’s coming this way. The response: “You’ll need a psychiatrist. I’m not sure what [they’re] doing.”

The topic of Howard, DeMarcus Cousins and other free agent center options came up during a recent edition of the “I Called Game” podcast with ESPN’s Ryen Russillo.

“I wouldn’t touch Dwight,” Russillo said bluntly. He noted, “The Nets didn’t even want him around.”

Apparently the Wizards do. Nothing can become official until after July 6 when the new league year begins and Howard clears waivers following a contract buy out from Brooklyn, which only acquired the five-time first-time All-NBA center last month.

Howard’s original three-year, $70.5 million contract was set to expire in 2019. When the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft signs with Washington, the Wizards become his fourth team over the life of that deal.

“(Howard) can run (pick-and-roll) OK. Declining defender. Block a shot here and there, but can’t switch” is the basketball analysis from one NBA source. Howard is not the athletic big man John Wall asked for after the season. Despite trading Gortat, the Wizards still have two interior centers who cannot play together. Neither Howard nor Ian Mahinmi is a perimeter threat nor an ideal defensive option against stretch-5 types. The Wizards played Howard off the court with small-ball looks during their 2017 playoffs against Atlanta.

My sample size of sources, good enough to break some news and keep me in the loop on most offseason Wizards topics, isn’t vast compared to say those national insiders. I don’t assume what I’ve heard from these voices alone is gospel. We’ve all been around sports and life long enough to know reputations are easy to earn and hard to shake. I’m also a firm believer in the notion that people mature or at least change.

Then there are those set in their ways. Howard’s bolder of stubbornness has gained momentum at such pace even speed cameras cannot capture. He once was one of the faces of the league. Now he’s the guy teams – yes, plural – decide they would rather unload even at the expense of taking on someone’s horrid contract.

You know how in these parts folks ask why did the Wizards give Ian Mahinmi that four-year, $64 million contract in 2016 and how do they get rid of it? Timofey Mozgov signed the same contract days prior with the Lakers – and Charlotte just acquired him and two second-round picks from Brooklyn for a player who averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds last season while shooting 55.5 percent from the field. Weird, right? Well…

Rick Bonnell, the longtime Hornets beat writer for the Charlotte Observer wrote about the trade last month:

I agree with all the misgivings about the Charlotte Hornets taking on the roughly $32 million remaining on center Timofey Mozgov’s contract. However, shipping Dwight Howard off this roster makes sense on multiple levels. …

Wednesday’s news comes exactly one year after the Atlanta Hawks dealt Howard to the Hornets, accepting Miles Plumlee’s awful contract in return.

Ask yourself: If the Hawks were willing to take back an awful contract to move Howard and then the Hornets agreed to do the same one season later, doesn’t that make a statement?

It does. Meanwhile a Brooklyn team desperate for assets after that all-time dubious 2014 trade with Boston, decided it would stroke a check rather than having Howard muck up their rebuilding plan. The Nets count as his fourth team in four years. The Wizards will make it five in four and seventh since 2012.

Former Wizards center and current NBA analyst Brendan Haywood on SiriusXM NBA radio after the trade: “The (Hornets) locker room hated Dwight Howard,” He added, “[He’s] hard to deal with, doesn’t accept responsibility, cries a lot, has bad tendencies, awful body language. … Listen, in Atlanta, everybody heard that the team was cheering when they heard Dwight Howard was traded.”

Bonnell, went on to say Howard, “plays his way and expects others to adapt to him.” Bonnell identified the on-court fit with swimgman Nicolas Batum as being particularly impacted by Howard’s presence. “Batum took a lot of criticism last season, some of it justified. But I watched all the ways he tried to fit his game with Howard’s. Batum’s best attribute is smart decisions with the ball that lead to high-quality shots. Much of that was negated with how the ball stopped when it hit Howard in the post.”

This seems like pertinent insight for a Wizards team with Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and Austin Rivers on the wing.

This isn’t just about the last couple of seasons. There was the highly awkward 2012 press conference with Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy and a rough 2012-13 season with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Seriously, if now took all this information and condensed into video form, it might go something like this: bit.ly/2NitfvX.

So, why are the Wizards going this route?

Limited options. As a straight talent, Howard was arguably the best available center in Washington’s realistic price range. Kyle O’Quinn, Alex Len and Kevon Looney may come with less headaches, but they’ve never come close to Howard’s production. In March against the Nets, Howard had 32 points and 30 rebounds, becoming the first NBA player with a 30-30 game in seven years.

He can fill the Gortat role. Gortat became known for racking up screen assists. He finished fourth last season with 4.5 per game – just two slots ahead of Howard (4.2). Howard isn’t as durable as Gortat, who only missed eight games in five seasons with Washington, but he’ll play 70-plus games. Howard (1.6 blocks per game in 2017-18) also provides more rim protection than Gortat (0.7) even if he’s no longer NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

He isn’t Ian Mahinmi. Strictly in terms of two-way play, he is better than Washington’s default starter following the Gortat trade. Mahinmi helps as a rebounder, defender and teammate, but can be brutal with the ball offensively and he had the highest foul rate per 48 minutes last season. Barring a bold move, the Wizards will pay Mahinmi around $32 million over the next two seasons.

Maybe it actually works. The Wizards don’t need the Superman version of Howard, who led the 2009 Orlando Magic past the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Final. When I mention there are caveats in James’ streak of eight consecutive East championships, one is that Howard left Orlando in 2012.

Washington’s perimeter depth appears much improved with Rivers and first-round pick Troy Brown Jr. joining John Wall, Beal, Porter, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tomas Satoransky. The modern NBA is about smaller lineups and the Wizards have their most robust set of wing/guard options in years led by All-Stars Wall and Beal. Adding Jeff Green, a versatile power forward who can switch defensively, further boosts this aspect. There’s enough happening offensively that Howard can just focus on rebounding, paint-clogging defense and screen setting.

Will he is the question. That really is the entire question. Will Dwight Howard finally understand he may play center but his type of center is no longer the centerpiece of an NBA offense or does that reported moodiness overtake such rationale. If the latter, then his relationship with the always candid Wall will be a hot one. I’m not sure how Batum dealt with Howard’s on-court stubbornness. Wall won’t go quietly into that postgame night.

If he doesn’t do the little things, “there is no way he will co-exist with John,” a current NBA player told The Sports Capitol.

Being moody means there are times when the sun shines. Some sources are perplexed by Howard because at times he’s a very nice guy to be around. This same guy who played one-on-one with a kid during a rain delay in Washington. The issue doesn’t appear to be the potential, but consistency of demeanor.

Howard or his confidants can say he’s ready to alter his negative image. For the sake of sanity and interesting basketball, here’s hoping that occurs. When it happens, we’ll believe it.  

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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