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Diving into Dwight Howard’s impact in his first season with the Hornets

As another disappointing season comes to an end, a detailed look at Dwight Howard’s season reveals he isn’t quite to blame for Charlotte’s struggles.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

When Dwight Howard was traded from the Atlanta Hawks to the Charlotte Hornets the last offseason, Kevin Pelton of ESPN gave the Hornets an A for the trade. His thinking was similar to most Hornets fans, the risk was low, and the upside was high. After all, Charlotte only gave up Miles Plumlee (good riddance), Marco Belinelli and a swap of second-round picks. The deal would hurt Charlotte’s cap in the short term, but help it in the long term (slightly) by getting rid of Plumlee’s extra contract year.

Howard was 31 and coming off a down year in Atlanta, but if anyone were to get the most out of him it would be Steve Clifford who coached him in Orlando and L.A. They had a good relationship, and Howard trusted him. The addition of Howard was supposed to take the Hornets from 36 wins last year to the 43-45 win range and the six or seven seed in the east. Well, the Hornets are likely to win around 36 games again and miss the playoffs.

The subject of Dwight’s impact on the Hornets has been significantly discussed amongst Hornets fans. Does he impact winning, or is he just a stat stuffer? Was he part of the problem of the Hornets disappointing season, or were the circumstances around him more to blame?

In the team’s March 21st win over Brooklyn, Dwight had a historic game with 32 points and 30 rebounds. He dominated and won the game for the Hornets, as he has done a couple of times this season. The problem is that at 31, he’s not going to produce those dominant like performances consistently.

This season, with six games left, Dwight has had twenty games with at least twenty points and ten rebounds. Pretty impressive, but the Hornets are only 11-9 in those games. Digging deeper reveals three of those wins were against the Hawks, and one against the Nets, Magic, Suns, and Pistons; all lottery teams. Howard has only had four dominant games that resulted in wins against playoff contenders. Not all his fault of course, but interesting.

Now looking at the games Dwight did not play well, how did the Hornets do? Howard had ten games in single digits, and the Hornets were 2-8 in those games. This is more telling -- the Hornets needed Howard’s offense this season to win, and when they didn’t get it, they usually lost. That alone proves some value.

Offensive Impact

For the season, Howard has averaged 16.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks, which, by themselves, are pretty good numbers and proof that he turned back the clock somewhat. It is his highest scoring average since his first season in Houston. Of course, he got the opportunity to put up points, and he averaged 11.3 field goal attempts per game, also the most since his first season in Houston.

The bad part is that as Dwight’s volume goes up, his efficiency decreases. He currently shoots 55 percent from the field, the lowest mark since his second season in the league. The good news is his aggressiveness has led to more attempts at the line, and for all the criticism Dwight is at 56 percent, which is his highest mark since 2010-2011 in Orlando. That is still a lousy number and not enough to make up for his poor field goal percentage, which is why his true shooting percentage was only 57.5 percent, his lowest mark in five years.

Clifford gave Dwight the opportunity to run the offense through him this season. At times, Howard was the primary option, a responsibility he hasn’t had in years. His finishing was down for two reasons. For one, teams can pack the paint against Howard and the Hornets, due to the lack of shooters around him. Second, he is not the same athlete he was in years past. He ha missed an absurd amount of bunnies and dunks this year. Don’t get me wrong he is still a great athlete, just not an elite one. That drop off leads dunk attempts becoming layup attempts, and Dwight missed a lot of those. Remember this play?

Dwight has gotten a lot of touches, but hasn’t shot a high percentage. He also has a low assist percent of only 6.9 percent and a high turnover percentage of 16.7 percent, one of the worst marks in the league. Still, Dwight draws a ton of fouls, and that alone has value. Getting opposing starters in foul trouble and getting to the line was one Dwight’s and the Hornets strength on offense this season. Charlotte is an average offensive rebounding team — without Dwight they would be terrible as he was third in offensive rebound percentage — and his offensive rebounds won the Hornets the game at Brooklyn.

Charlotte was a terrible shooting team this year finishing 27th in effective field goal percentage, meaning they need extra possessions and Dwight gave them that. Howard had 3.2 offensive rebounds per game, which was fifth in the league.

Here Howard runs the floor after Kemba pushes it. Kemba misses the layup, but Howard finishes it with the putback slam. Even though he is not the same athlete, he has given the Hornets an above the rim presence and often does a good job running the floor for easy putbacks and duck-ins.

Finally, there was screening, one of the more underrated skill sets in the NBA. Howard did a nice job, although it took some time to develop chemistry with Walker and Nicolas Batum. Once they got it, good things happened. Howard led the Hornets with 4.3 screen assists per game.

Individually though, Howard has been inefficient on offense. According to Synergy, he is in the 55th percentile overall. Dwight spent 36 percent of his time in the post despite ranking in the 39th percentile on post-ups. He had a ridiculous 18 percent turnover percentage in the post. That’s where most of his turnovers come from.

That is the bad, but it is clear Dwight helped the team on offense. He is third in offensive rating, and the Hornets offensive rating was four points higher (111-to-107) when he was on the court.

Defensive Impact

Howard was primarily brought in for his defense and rim protection, and yet Charlotte was worse this season on defense. How much of that is on Dwight?

Howard averaged 1.7 blocks per game his highest since his first season in Houston, but we all know there is more to defense than blocking shots. His block percentage was elite, but this impressive part is he did it without fouling. Howard was also an elite defensive rebounder this year and was a big reason why the Hornets were first in defensive rebounding this year.

Looking closer, though, the Hornets were still 22nd in protecting the rim this year, despite Howard’s good block numbers. Howard leads the Hornets in contested shots at nine per game, but he chases blocks at times which causes other problems on defense. According to Synergy, players around the basket had a score frequency of 54 percent against Dwight. That number is below average. It speaks to a more significant problem of Dwight playing defense in the modern NBA. He has lost some quickness, and when teams put Dwight through several pick and rolls, he struggles. He ranked below average at defending both the ball handler and the roll man in pick and rolls.

Here is bad Dwight on defense. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic run a pick and roll with Kemba and Dwight as the primary defenders. Once Jokic hits Kemba with the screen, Dwight just hangs back and doesn’t step up at all, which leads to an easy three for Murray. I know your not comfortable out there Dwight, but you at least have to get a hand up. This happened too many times this season.

Howard still had a positive defensive RPM, but it only ranks 23rd among centers. The Hornets needed more from Dwight, and too often his energy on defense was come and go. Hustle was an issue at times, which was the concern with Dwight coming in. Some nights he brought it while on other nights he couldn’t seem to be bothered. Dwight never takes charges, ranking tenth on the team, along with ninth in loose balls recovered and fifth in deflections. I’m not saying he should be first or second in these categories, but he should be better. Effort matters.

Howard was only seventh on the team in defensive rating. His on/off court numbers are about the same; the Hornets defensive rating was .3 points better with Howard on the court. Slightly better, but the Hornets wanted Howard to be a defensive difference maker, and he wasn’t.

Final Thoughts

A lot of Hornets fans question if he is better than Zeller. The short answer is last season’s Zeller and a fully healthy Zeller is better. Maybe not a better player but a better fit. His screening chemistry with Walker and Batum was established and he provides a bit more spacing. Howard finished with the better plus/minus which will surprise some Hornets fans, but remember even when Cody played this year he wasn't great. I think a lot of that was health, but he had a down year compared to last year. Starting Dwight made sense at least for this season.

Overall, though, Howard was fourth in net rating at +1.8 and the Hornets were better on both ends with him on the court. Howard finished 11th in wins added among centers, indicating that he’s helped the Hornets more than hurt them. At his age he has some limitations, and he can’t do the heavy lifting by himself in today’s NBA. When I look back on this Hornets season and try to point to what went wrong, I won’t point to Dwight first. Batum and Zeller injuries and two other rotation players missing more than five games had more than impact. The inability to win close games had more impact. Steve Clifford missing extended time had more of an effect.

Dwight wasn’t great, but he was good, and we were better with him than without him. He was more the solution than the problem. That doesn’t mean Charlotte and its new GM won’t look to move him in the offseason. Even though he is old, he is finishing strong and has some value as an expiring contract. If the deal is right, Charlotte should pull the trigger to get more minutes for Zeller and Willy Hernagomez. This season has been brutal Hornets fans, but don’t point the finger immediately at Dwight.