There’s a flip side to being a NBA team with cap space: You still must convince someone to take your money. By dumping Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, the Hawks have outfitted themselves to be spenders, and the shock of those Monday deals hadn’t abated before everyone with an Internet connection had identified their targets: Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.
Allow me to inject a dollop of reality. There’s every chance that Paul, already the source of much disappointment in this precinct, will choose to stay with the Clippers. As for Howard: Anyone who claims to know what he’ll do is lying.
Which isn’t to say the Hawks should give up, not with the options they’ve created. (Danny Ferry, the general manager who created those options, wouldn’t seem to be easily deterred.) They could indeed take runs at Paul and Howard next summer, when the two are scheduled to become free agents. They could pursue a trade with Orlando now, offering Al Horford and Jeff Teague as bait. Or they could — and I’ll acknowledge this is unlikely — say of Howard, “Know what? We’d rather stick with Horfy.”
My contrarian take: I’m not sure Howard is quite as good as advertised, and he has proved in Orlando that he can wreck a franchise. Magic GM Otis Smith dynamited his roster in December 2010 in the wrong-headed attempt to make the Magic good enough to convince Howard to stick around, and the team hasn’t won a playoff series since. Smith got fired and so, at Howard’s reported request, did coach Stan Van Gundy.
In March, Howard agreed to waive an opt-out clause and remain with Orlando through the summer of 2013. Last week he asked to be traded to Brooklyn, implying that the Nets are the only team with which he’ll sign long-term. The Magic have endured this melodrama for more than two years, and there’s no end in sight.
Howard is the league’s best center by a mile, but that’s largely because there are only three or four real centers extant. He has been in the NBA since 2004 and hasn’t developed a staple offensive move. (Unless you count the dunk.) Nor can he make free throws. We live in an age where superstars are supposed to demand the ball at crunch time, but when last did you see Howard dominate a game at its end?
In his prime, Shaquille O’Neal was unstoppable. Howard’s effect can be blunted. Jason Collins, who’s not much of a player, has made a living getting in his way, and Howard doesn’t like it when people get in his way. He starts griping. He gets T’d up. He becomes a distraction to the team he’s supposed to be leading.
Howard gets much credit for Orlando’s run to the 2009 finals, but he had much help. The Magic prayed that opponents would double-team their big man, believing their 3-point shooters would carry the day. The way to beat Orlando — too bad Mike Woodson never learned this — is to make Howard score 40 points. Know how many times in his NBA career he has broken 40? Six. And the Magic lost two of those games. (One to the Hawks, as coached by Woodson’s successor Larry Drew.)
Such is Howard’s talent that the Hawks are duty-bound to try and hook him. He’s an Atlanta guy and he’s Josh Smith’s buddy and his presence would push the Hawks’ profile through the roof. I know all that. I get all that. I’m just not sure he’d make this a championship team, especially if Horford and Teague are sacrificed.
Were I the Hawks, I’d wait until next summer and see if he’s still available as a free agent. (If he’s gone to Brooklyn by then, so be it.) The only way I’d trade for Howard is if he agrees to re-up with the Hawks, an organization for which he has expressed little affection, and even then I’d be leery. As good as he is, Dwight Howard is not LeBron James.
But that’s just me, and my intent isn’t to rain on anyone’s Fourth of July. The Hawks have made two good moves and could be poised to make better ones. And honesty compels me to concede that Danny Ferry just might be a better GM than I am.
By Mark Bradley