I never cared for Dwight Howard. He ripped his Superman gimmick from Shaquille O’Neal and didn’t live up to the nickname the same way Shaq did. While Howard made a significant impact on the league in his heyday — he was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and eight-time All-NBA selection — he never annihilated opponents in the ways that Shaq could and never progressed the big-man template as the game changed. He never developed advanced low-post moves. He never became a skilled passer. He never accepted the responsibility of becoming a pick-and-roll lob threat despite having the perfect blend of athleticism and size to pull it off. He never improved as a free throw shooter. Howard wanted to be Shaq, but his remake was as nuanced as the 2013 version of Oldboy.
The positives that Howard once brought to the court have been especially hard to find since he was named to the All-NBA second team in 2013–14. Howard has become a player that no one wants, an antiquated offensive big man whose schticky humor annoys anyone in his orbit.
“It’s crazy. It really is,” Stan Van Gundy, Howard’s ex-Orlando coach, said on 96.9 The Game when asked in late August about Howard’s rapid decline. “And it’s not been a lot of fun to watch because this is a guy who was the best center in the game for a long time. He’s still very good, but it doesn’t seem that he’s been highly appreciated.” Van Gundy was telling the truth in 2012 when asked whether Howard wanted him fired, and he’s telling the truth now. Despite being a player that everyone loves to hate, Howard is still effective. And with only $5.3 million owed to him by the Wizards this season, he’s a bargain. That’s why he leads my list of the most underappreciated acquisitions of the NBA’s offseason.
1. Dwight Howard, Wizards
Signed for two years, $10.9 million with a player option in the second season.
Howard isn’t the defensive force he once was, but he’s still a deterrent around the rim, using his sheer size and length to alter the competition’s shot or defend like a brick wall in the post; he ranked 14th in interior defensive rating — an advanced defensive statistic created by Stephen Shea — for players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season. He’s a no-brainer upgrade over the washed-up Marcin Gortat, who was traded to the Clippers after issues arose between him and point guard John Wall. Gortat was consistent and durable, but so is Howard, who logged 81 games last season and has played fewer than 70 games just twice in his 14-year career. Howard can be relied on to stay on the court and to rebound: He vacuumed up 12.5 boards a game with the Hornets and logged a career-high 30 in a March contest against the Nets.
Howard also dropped 32 points in that win in Brooklyn, marking the first 30–30 game since Kevin Love did it in 2010. Howard’s post game is deader than it’s ever been, but he still can cut, crash the boards, and throw down lob dunks. The 32-year-old was efficient scoring off others this past season in Charlotte, and he frequently cleaned up Kemba Walker’s missed layups or floaters when rumbling down the lane in the pick-and-roll.
Now he’s going to play with Wall, the best point guard he’s played with since James Harden (who didn’t carry the load back then in the same way he has in recent seasons). Either way, Wall runs the pick-and-roll more downhill, which Howard hasn’t had before. Howard’s previous point guards managed the game (Jameer Nelson), were past their prime (Steve Nash), weren’t explosive (Kemba Walker), or looked to shoot first (Dennis Schröder). Wall still needs to break his bad habit of jacking up midrange jumpers, but he’s a mostly complete point guard who can zoom to the paint and yam it on opponents or spoon-feed others. Wall attracts defensive attention on his aggressive drives, which could free Howard for more chances to throw down pulverizing dunks than he’s used to. If Howard does focus more on rim runs, cuts, and rolls — and a Washington Post interview with Howard and his trainer, Justin Zormelo, suggests that Howard knows it’s “either evolve, adapt or get left behind” — then Howard and a core of Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. could actually make things interesting in the open Eastern Conference.
We’ve heard this before from Howard — pretty much every offseason. Howard still loves to post up: He finished 499 of his offensive possessions from the post last season, which ranked behind only LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Embiid, per Synergy. But this may be the last season he’ll be paid like a superstar. Though he’s due $18.9 million from the Nets as a result of a July buyout, his salary from the Wizards is less than the likes of Boban Marjanovic, Jason Smith, and Dewayne Dedmon. Maybe reality has set in that nobody wants him for big money unless he proves that he can change. Howard was never Superman, but it’s not too late to be the Hulk.
2. Austin Rivers, Wizards
Acquired in a trade from the Clippers for Marcin Gortat.
Wall has been backed up the past three seasons by the likes of Ty Lawson, Tim Frazier, Trey Burke, and Brandon Jennings. Tomas Satoransky emerged last season while Wall was sidelined, but he fell to earth once Wall returned, and he lacks the dynamic scoring ability often valued in reserve point guards. Over 90 percent of Wall’s minutes last season came with Beal on the floor since head coach Scott Brooks rarely staggers his guards, which meant a backup was often running the show. Now the Wizards have Rivers, who, contrary to popular belief, is quite solid.
Rivers, only 26 years old, improved every season with the Clippers and has developed into a gritty guard defender and competent scorer in the pick-and-roll capable of pulling up from long range or attacking the paint. He’s fearless, which hurt him earlier in his career, but it pays off now in his role as a microwave scorer.
If Brooks maintains his rotations, Rivers will get a lot of chances off the bench without Wall or Beal sharing the floor. He spent last season scoring well against starting lineups, and could now feast against benches. With one year, $12.7 million left on his contract, Rivers is about to have a platform to shine ahead of unrestricted free agency. It’s a win for both sides. It feels as though the Wizards are slipping down the Eastern Conference power rankings, but their two main additions are calculated gambles that could help them get closer to the top.
3. Jakob Poeltl, Spurs
Acquired from the Raptors in the Kawhi Leonard trade.
There’s understandably been a ton of focus on what DeMar DeRozan will provide for the Spurs in the wake of the Kawhi blockbuster. But don’t overlook Poeltl, the other Raptors player acquired along with a 2019 first-round pick. The casual fan probably doesn’t even know who Poeltl is. Here’s a crash course: Poeltl (rhymes with turtle) is a 22-year-old center drafted ninth in 2016 who already possesses an impressive blend of perimeter mobility and shot-blocking prowess on defense and scores with immense efficiency around the rim on offense via explosive dunks and touch finishes.
Poeltl was a key cog in Toronto’s remarkable bench unit last season, and now he’s about to play for the Spurs, the team that recently revitalized Pau Gasol’s career, made David Lee look playable, and started Tiago Splitter during their championship run in 2014. That’s no knock against Splitter, who was quite a good two-way big for the Spurs. But the Spurs haven’t recently had a center as talented on both ends of the floor or as young as Poeltl, yet they’ve done a damn good job at the position in recent years. Poeltl might remain who he is — a steady two-way center — for the rest of his career. But if there’s any team that can get the most out of him, it’s the Spurs.
4. Tyreke Evans, Pacers
Signed for one year, $12.3 million.
Evans can be what Pacers fans once wished Lance Stephenson was: an oversized guard who can make plays for himself and teammates without going out of control. Stephenson had the guts to live up to the moment — and birth a legendary meme in the process — but Evans is the better basketball player.
Evans averaged 19.4 points with a 52.3 effective field goal percentage in his lone season with the Grizzlies, the best of his career since his Rookie of the Year campaign way back in 2009–10. His efficiency may have been flukey like it was in his rookie season, but he looked fresher and healthier than he had in recent years, when he suffered from a long list of injuries. Evans looked leaner and stronger finishing through contact at the rim, and he improved his shooting stroke in recent years, so he’s capable of shooting 3s off the catch and the dribble.
Evans is skilled, but his offensive versatility is the key: He can play any role he’s asked to alongside Indiana’s other ball handlers, Victor Oladipo, Darren Collison, and Cory Joseph. Depending on the situation, Evans can lead the charge as a scorer, serve as a playmaker, or play off the ball. If Evans follows up last season with another strong performance, he could play a pivotal role in the Pacers exceeding expectations.
5. Michael Beasley, Lakers
Signed for one year, $3.5 million.
Beasley is a walking paradox. You watch him one game and ask yourself, “How has this guy not made a few All-Star Games?” But then you blink and it’s, “How’s he still not playing in China?” Beasley is a bucket-getting, headache-inducing machine. He’ll have spectacular scoring nights plagued by careless turnovers and fouls, and if his shot isn’t falling, he certainly doesn’t make up for it with his passing or defense.
Then why is Beasley on this list? Well, it’s simple: If he did what he doesn’t do, and scored more consistently, he’d be a star. Beasley’s offbeat personality and odd career trajectory might’ve turned him into a meme for the masses, but forget his reputation and you’ll see a player who can provide instant offense off the bench.
Beasley can score out of isolations and post up, pop, or roll in the screen game, spot up from 3, and attack the glass with athleticism. He scored 20 or more points 21 times last season and exploded four times for 30 or more points. Contending teams need high-upside players like Beasley who don’t need to bring it every night but move the needle when they are on fire.
6. Jabari Parker, Bulls
Signed for two years, $40 million, with a team option for the second season.
Earlier this summer, I wrote that Chicago’s signing of Parker was a win for both sides because the Bulls, a rebuilding team, get at least one season to look at a former no. 2 pick who has shown flashes, while Fred Hoiberg’s motion-based system could maximize Parker’s scoring skill set. Parker wasn’t a hot commodity for two reasons: He has torn his ACL twice and plays defense like he doesn’t think players get paid for it.
But considering Chicago’s situation, he’s worth the risk. Hoiberg can get creative with lineups; I’d love to see some jumbo looks with Parker sharing the frontcourt with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. and Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn at the guard spots. The team would be weak defensively but would have immense versatility offensively with five players who can handle and pass for their respective positions.
Playing in front of his home crowd could also help. “Chicago is home,” Parker wrote recently for The Players’ Tribune. “We might all come from different places, but home means something — something powerful — to each of us. We carry home with us, all the good and the bad and the in-between.” There’s always so much talk about players going back to their roots — Kevin Durant to Washington, D.C.; Kyrie Irving to New York; and Klay Thompson to Los Angeles — but it rarely happens. It’s special when someone does go home, like when LeBron brought a title to Cleveland. I’m glad Parker gets to live out his childhood dreams and make a difference in the Chicago community. Sometimes, that’s what is most underappreciated.