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The Dwight Howard trade improves the Hornets at a low cost

At 31, Howard isn’t the player he once was, but the Hornets managed to significantly upgrade the center position without sacrificing any assets.

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards - Game Two Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Charlotte Hornets work in mysterious ways. Rumors almost never leak, and they operate with such subtlety that it’s almost always a shock to see their name linked with any potential trade. It isn’t glamorous, but it’s preferable to the firestorm other teams often stir.

While the likes of Dan Gilbert, Paul George, and Los Angeles Lakers collectively set the league on fire this past weekend, Charlotte silently navigated one of the most significant trades in the franchise’s history Tuesday evening, acquiring Dwight Howard and the 31st pick of the 2017 NBA draft in exchange for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli, and the 41st pick. Given how they operate, it shouldn’t have been surprising, and yet it was hard not to wonder whether it had actually happened or not.

Rich Cho managed to flip one of the worst trades he’s ever made, acquiring Plumlee last February, without sacrificing a single asset. Howard’s contract is massive — he’ll make $47 million over the next two seasons — but that last part is key: where Plumlee was under contract for three more seasons, Howard is for just two. That’s significant, because when his contract expires, the Hornets will more than likely be looking to extend Kemba Walker, and now won’t have to worry about the last year of Plumlee’s contract on the salary cap.

Plus, even though he’s aging and out of favor with his previous two teams, Howard is a significant upgrade. He’s not the All-Star center from his days in Orlando, but he averaged 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks last season, numbers not quite seen from a Hornets center since Al Jefferson. Unlike Big Al, Howard brings an actual defensive presence the Hornets have lacked for a few seasons.

There are concerns, of course. Howard’s play has declined the past two seasons, and there have always been questions as to how he gets along, or rather doesn’t, with teammates and coaches. What Charlotte is likely centering on is his apparent good relationship with Steve Clifford. Per Woj:

Howard, 31, is an eight-time All-Star center, but has fallen out of favor in consecutive years with Atlanta and Houston, and could get the career reboot he needs joining the Hornets and coach Steve Clifford. Howard and Clifford were together with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, and Clifford had been interested in acquiring the three-time Defensive Player of the Year in recent seasons, league sources said.

Clifford has a good working relationship with Howard and worked under coach Stan Van Gundy with Howard during his first-team All-NBA and Defensive Player of the Year seasons in Orlando.

Acquiring Howard last summer made a bit of sense, even if it wasn’t widely talked about, and even if the prospect of paying him $70 million was a lot to swallow. The Clifford connection seems to be the sticking point here. Clifford is all too familiar with how things went down in Orlando, yet it seems his relationship with Howard didn’t sour because of it. We can assume at this point that despite the issues Howard has developed with teams in the past, the Hornets feel things will be different if Howard and Clifford trust each other. It’s a classic move from Cho — seek a player who’s stock is low and bring him to Charotte in hopes he will have a bounce back season.

At 31, Howard can still be an effective player, and when healthy, will nicely round up the Hornets lineup. If Howard starts (and I know most of you are currently shouting “DWIGHT ISN’T STARTING”) the Hornets will essentially be running a 2009 Orlando Magic team of sorts, with three to four perimeter players spreading the floor (depending on the lineup) with Howard taking up space in the post.

Offensively, he could form a nice partnership with Kemba Walker in the pick-and-roll game, and Nicolas Batum has another post threat to look for. The vast majority of his attempts last season consisted of dunks, layups, and alley-oops, and nearly twice as many of his attempts were assisted. Most of his shots will be at the rim, but he did say in an interview with ESPN’s The Jump that he’s working on his 3-point shot. It’s a nice thought, but he’s 5-56 all time in his career, so it’s tough to expect him to suddenly start shooting like Brook Lopez did last season. That said, he’s been talking about it for some time now, so it sounds as if he’s serious. Maybe we’ll see results this season.

As for who starts, Howard or Cody Zeller, it doesn’t really matter at this point. For the first time recent memory, the Hornets have legitimate depth at the center position with two starting caliber centers on the roster. Each can provide a cover for the other if one gets injured, which could prevent a collapse like the one last season.

Tuesday morning, the team seemed unlikely to make any significant moves. Moving big contracts tied to players coming off a underwhelming season didn’t seem possible without giving up a future pick or young prospect, yet the Hornets pulled off a deal that gives them a legitimate chance to be in the playoff picture next season, and not one on the fringe either.

This trade gets an important week for the Hornets off to the right start. Acquiring the 31st pick along with Howard gives them a chance to select a potential late first round talent who fell out of the first round, and a good number of the players they worked out the past week or so could be available at or around 31.

The risks regarding Howard are there, but they have significantly upgraded their roster, and based on reaction on social media, injected much needed enthusiasm into the fanbase. There will be more to say on this in the coming days and weeks, but the Hornets appear to have pulled off a significant win.