When the Charlotte Hornets acquired Dwight Howard in return for a package of Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee, the general reaction was that the Hornets got a steal. They bought low on a likely Hall of Fame player coming out of a bad situation. He was the physical, rim protecting interior threat Rich Cho and Steve Clifford had long expressed a desire for. There were reasons for optimism.
That optimism was validated when the Hornets won five of their first eight contests of the season. Despite being in his 14th season, Howard put up big numbers during that stretch, averaging over 14 points and 14 boards per game, albeit while struggling with turnovers and free throw shooting.
Then the losses started coming.
The Hornets lost their next six games, marking the beginning of a 20 game stretch in which the Hornets only won five times. Even during the losses, Howard produced; he averaged 17.2 points and 11.9 rebounds while cutting down on his turnovers and improving his free throw shooting. For whatever reason, it wasn’t helping.
That trend held true through the duration of the season. Despite the presence of All Star Kemba Walker and the hefty 16.6 point, 12.5 rebound, 1.6 block stat line from Dwight Howard, the Hornets only managed to win 36 games for the second consecutive year. It resulted in a total overhaul of the front office, who made getting Howard out of town one of the first orders of business.
On the surface, it seems an odd move to make, but a deeper look at Howard’s effects on the team paint a clearer picture of the reasoning behind the move. There are of course the repeated rumblings of locker room discord that follow Howard everywhere he goes. Beyond that though, there are significant on court benefits to be rid of the eight time all star.
On an individual level, the Hornets won’t have to worry about catering to a center that wants the ball in post situations. Post ups made 36.3% of Howard’s possessions, trailing only LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Embiid among players who were credited with at least 100 post up possessions. Howard ranked in the 39th percentile in such situations, while the only two to go to the post more frequently ranked in the 80th and 75th percentiles respectively. Without a player anchored to the block on offense, there should be much more space for the likes of Walker, Malik Monk, and Jeremy Lamb to get to the basket and make plays.
There’s even evidence from last season that Howard’s absence will improve the play of those around him. Dwight had an on/off rating of +3.6 last season, but that number is misleading. He played over 92% of his minutes with Kemba Walker, an objectively great player that has consistently had a tremendous positive impact on team success when he’s on the floor.
When Howard shared the floor with Walker, the Hornets outscored opponents by 2.4 points per 100 possession, a respectable output. However, in the nearly 200 minutes Kemba played without Dwight, the Hornets outscored their opposition by 8.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark on par with the Warriors death lineup in 2017-18.
This discrepancy manifests itself in lineup data with the rest of the Hornets roster, particularly the starters.
Hornets rotation players with Howard vs. with Zeller
|Player||With Howard||With Zeller|
|Player||With Howard||With Zeller|
All of the Hornets previous starters had significantly better net ratings when on the floor with Zeller, while the differences between Lamb’s and Kaminsky’s weren’t nearly as significant. It’s also likely that Lamb and Kaminsky’s numbers with Zeller are hindered by the absence of Kemba Walker in those lineups, while Kemba was likely present in a lot of the lineups where Lamb and Kaminsky shared the floor with Howard.
The Hornets went 3-17 in the twenty games Cody Zeller missed as starting center in 2016-17. In the one game Dwight Howard missed as starting center in 2017-18, the Hornets won by 61 points. Zeller’s impact on winning once again showed itself in 2017-18, but it was stymied by the presence of Howard on the roster. With Howard now in Washington, the starting center spot should go back to Zeller, and the Hornets will be much better for it.