June used to mean something different to Dwight Howard. Once upon a time, in 2009, he got the best of LeBron James. The Magic poached a Finals spot from the clear favorites in the East, stealing history’s chance at a Kobe vs. LeBron series. Dwight doesn’t play in June anymore. He hasn’t made it past the first round since 2015. These days, Dwight gets traded in June.
On Wednesday, the Charlotte Hornets agreed to deal Dwight to Brooklyn for Timofey Mozgov, the 45th pick in Thursday’s draft, a 2021 second-rounder, and cash. The Nets will be his fourth team since 2016, and the trade comes exactly one year after he was sent to the Hornets in the first place. Atlanta shipped his contract away for a return of Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli, and a second-rounder. The Dwight trades over the past two seasons are examples of history repeating itself in more ways than one. Both involved Dwight’s former team taking on a big with a price tag no one in their right mind would pay under normal circumstances. And both had Howard’s newly former teams heaving huge sighs of relief.
”The locker room did not like Dwight Howard,” ESPN’s Brendan Haywood said on his Sirius XM radio show after details of the reported Nets-Hornets trade became public. “Guys were just sick and tired of his act.”
Tales of the Atlanta locker room from last year after Dwight’s send-off were far more colorful. Three months after he was traded from the Hawks, Zach Lowe mentioned on his podcast stories of “Hawks players learning about the trade and screaming with jubilation into their phones.”
This is what Dwight Howard is known for in 2018. He is, indisputably, a future Hall of Famer. He’s made eight All-NBA teams. He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He’s still an elite rebounder. He’s a career 17-and-13 guy. But that on-court reputation has been eclipsed by the one he’s developed in the locker room over the past decade, so much so that teams have willingly taken on Plumlee and Mozgov in consecutive summers to have him whisked away. He’s a salary dump.
Six years ago, when he was still in Orlando, Dwight wanted to be traded to the Nets. It took him four teams to get his way, and sadly, his dream of partnering up with Deron Williams has long expired. (Though, technically, D-Will is still on Brooklyn’s payroll.) The Magic did finally oblige Dwight’s trade request, sending him to the Lakers, where Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash—a future dynasty, maybe—awaited him. Rarely can we so precisely pinpoint the beginning of a downward spiral.
Dwight left after a dramatic year. He didn’t mix well with Kobe or coach Mike D’Antoni. At this point, he was still sought after—lots of people didn’t get along with Kobe. (Ask the other dominant center who joined him from Orlando.) Los Angeles put up billboards begging him to stay, Dallas pitched him, and Golden State wanted in, but eventually Houston won. Won sounds inappropriate in retrospect. He and James Harden would make the Western Conference finals together, but Dwight and Harden quickly became the ugliest teammate feud since … Dwight and Kobe.
The issue Dwight had in L.A. was the same in Houston, and it would continue in Atlanta and Charlotte. He wanted more looks in the post, something that ran counter to how both coaches and players wanted to play at all of his post-Magic stops. In Atlanta, Lowe reported, teammates would be subject to Dwight’s speeches about unity, then watch him rotate listlessly on defense and demand more post touches. Despite his uptick in raw production and legitimate added value to the team, it was no different on the Hornets.
“In Charlotte, Dwight Howard was … Dwight Howard,” tweeted Yahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix. “Teammates and coaches occasionally rolled their eyes when he tried to take on leadership roles and demand more touches in the post.”
In 2016, after the Rockets became the victims of yet another messy exit—Dwight wouldn’t commit to opting in, effectively killing a trade before the deadline with the Bucks and leaving Houston empty-handed—the big man pled his case on TNT’s Inside the NBA.
“As a big, sometimes you want to feel a part of what’s going on.” He was speaking to sympathetic ears: Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, to whatever degree those two would sympathise with this generation of players. “I have to rely on my teammates in certain aspects to get the ball,” Dwight said.
Not being able to create for himself has always been the Achilles’ heel of the traditional center, never so much as in recent years. When offenses no longer demand touches in the post, there is no longer much of a supply of them. But as Howard Beck of Bleacher Report pointed out at the time, becoming the traditional post player was Dwight’s doing: “Somewhere along the way, Howard became convinced that he should play like an old-school center. He rejected D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll-heavy offense, though it suited him perfectly.”
The Hornets have elected to pay Mozgov $33 million over the next two seasons over a future Hall of Famer that averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 boards for them with one year and $24 million remaining on his contract. In Charlotte, Dwight once again refused the pick-and-roll that made him so good in Orlando—his screen-setting was “terrible” according to a source of The Charlotte Observer’s (the source could be my eyes, or Hawks fans the year prior), and his style didn’t connect with the team’s facilitators, like Nic Batum, whose “pick-and-roll game was at odds with the low-post isolation moves that Howard preferred.”
Ever since he left Orlando, Dwight’s refused to engage in what made his partnership with Stan Van Gundy such a successful one. He’s not the ever-mobile tool on offense that he once was, but because of a decline in athleticism. The game is lapping other centers his age, while Dwight is jogging backwards.
“Why do you think people don’t like you?” Barkley asked on that Inside the NBA appearance in 2016.
It was a question ’09 Dwight probably never expected to be on the answering end of. His career didn’t fall off because he could no longer rebound or defend or because of a devastating injury. It fell off because he wants more than any team will give him. Brooklyn is Dwight’s fifth “second chance” to correct the path he’s been headed down: becoming the punch line he’s spent his career trying to nail.