A year to the day after being traded from Atlanta to Charlotte, Dwight Howard is on the move again, this time to Brooklyn. The Nets will be Howard’s sixth NBA team and fourth in the past two calendar years after leaving Houston for Atlanta in July 2016. And much like Jimmy McNulty, Howard’s reputation precedes his arrival in Brooklyn: he sets fire to everything he touches, then walks away while it burns. Charlotte makes the fifth consecutive team that has been unhappy with the baggage he brings to the locker room, the lack of leadership, and how those machinations influence the team’s play on the court. And for the second consecutive summer, the team shipping him out had to overpay to get rid of him and might have been better off trying to work a buyout or simply sending him home and taking the cap hit for the remaining time on his contract.
The details of the trade: Brooklyn receives Howard, who has one year and $23.8 million left on his contract. Charlotte gets Timofey Mozgov and the $32.7 million they’ll owe him over the next two years, in addition to two second-round picks in 2018 and 2021, plus cash. For the cap nerds out there (and if you’re not a cap nerd, how’d you find your way to this site?), the trade math is simple for this deal: Brooklyn has to take Howard into 2018-19 cap space, so they’ll need to shave about $24.0 million in salary and cap holds between now and July 6 in order to make the trade fully legal. They have many ways of getting this done, but two moves they’ll absolutely make are declining to tender the qualifying offer and renouncing the cap hold of Nik Stauskas, and renouncing Jahlil Okafor’s cap hold. The two of those are worth $17.7 million of the $24.0 million they need to scrap, and the remaining $6.3 million will have to come from the following list, unless Brooklyn makes another trade between now and then:
-Dante Cunningham’s cap hold – $4.3 million
-Quincy Acy’s cap hold – $1.5 million
-Joe Harris’s cap hold – $1.5 million
-Milton Doyle’s cap hold – $1.3 million
-James Webb’s cap hold – $1.3 million
-The traded player exception generated in the Rashad Vaughn trade – $1.9 million
-Spencer Dinwiddie’s non-guaranteed contract – $1.7 million
-Isaiah Whitehead’s non-guaranteed contract – $1.5 million
That list encompasses $15.1 million in cuttable salary or renounceable cap holds and the Nets only need to add it all up to $6.3 million to get under the cap to complete the trade. Of these, Harris’s free agent cap hold and Dinwiddie’s non-guaranteed contract are absolute keepers—Harris is due a raise and will be an unrestricted free agent, but the Nets will want to be able to go over the cap to keep him, and Dinwiddie is one of the league’s best values on a minimum contract after his breakout season in 2017-18 and should be the subject of extension negotiations with the Nets once the offseason settles a bit more. Everything else is on the table to be removed from the Nets books and they’ll likely go into July before choosing which to let go, as that decision isn’t due until July 6, the end of the moratorium.
Now that we’ve gotten the nitty-gritty details out of the way, we can jump into the fun stuff: why would these two teams make this trade and what does it mean for their futures?
From Brooklyn’s perspective, this will just about do it for their cap space this summer, though there still could be about $9 million left if they truly cut ties with everybody listed above, but that won’t be enough money to take on another bad contract with an asset attached. The most important aspect of this trade for the Nets is that Howard’s contract is one year shorter than Mozgov’s, which opens the door for Brooklyn to have double max space next summer. Howard’s contract is timed with DeMarre Carroll and Jeremy Lin and could leave them with Allen Crabbe as the only player on a non-rookie scale contract when the clock turns over to 2019 free agency. Of course, a lot can change between now and then, starting with Harris’s new contract, an extension for Dinwiddie, rookie-scale extensions or qualifying offers for D’Angelo Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and their draft picks this year and next, but as of now, the Nets could be planning to go after a pair of big fish in 2019 to team up with their young core. Names like Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving at the point guard position and Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, and Kawhi Leonard on the wing will all likely be available next summer and you can bet the Nets will be heavily involved in pursuit of at least one of these players.
Howard’s impact for Brooklyn next season will fall somewhere between negative and non-existent, depending on how quickly the two sides work a buyout. At this point, he’s known to be a difficult fit in the locker room and the Nets have gone to great lengths to build a new culture through general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson. With a host of impressionable youngsters on the roster, Howard’s influence may push some of those players in the wrong direction or hinder their development. If they do keep him around, will he expect to start over Jarrett Allen? At this point, Howard is still the better player, but the Nets have a long-term investment in Allen, who showed that he’s a starting-caliber player in his rookie season. Allen should be the starter on the first night of the season, but doing so might send Howard’s already tenuous positivity into a downward spiral.
For the Hornets, it’s hard not to think of the two trades involving Howard as one larger transaction, even though they took place 365 days apart and involved entirely different front offices. Essentially, Charlotte moved three years of Miles Plumlee at $12.5 million per year and the 41st pick in the 2017 draft for one year of Howard at $23.5 million, two years of Mozgov at about $16.4 million per year, the 31st pick in 2017, the 45th pick in 2018, and Brooklyn’s 2021 second-rounder. The second-round maneuvering was very well done, but paying Plumlee $37.5 million over three years is a hell of a lot better than paying the combination of Howard and Mozgov $56.2 million over the same timeframe, especially considering that Plumlee is far more useful on the court than Mozgov. Is that extra $18.7 million worth moving up ten spots in the second round in 2017 and the two extra second-rounders they’ll get in 2018 and 2021? You could make that argument, though I’d come down on the opposite side.
Once Mitch Kupchak took over for Rich Cho, there was no way around it; he had to make moves to get under the tax. As I wrote in their offseason preview, their first-round pick in this year’s draft would put them dangerously close to the tax and owner Michael Jordan has never been one to want to go over the tax threshold. This move gives them a lot of wiggle room under the tax this year and will allow them to use most or all of their mid-level exception without getting into the danger zone.
Charlotte does avoid the tax this season, but adding another $16.7 million on their books for next year will leave them susceptible to a similar problem in 2019. Assuming Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist opt in to a combined $28.0 million for 2019-20, the Hornets will have $95.6 million in salary committed before considering new contracts for Walker, Frank Kaminsky, and Jeremy Lamb, in addition to their 2019 first-round pick and any money they put on their books this summer, from restricted free agent Treveon Graham to whomever they sign with their newly-available mid-level exception. The tax line is projected at $131 million for 2019-20, leaving them $35.4 million to work with (as of now). Walker will be eligible for 30 percent of the cap on a max contract that would start at $32.4 million, a deal he’ll certainly seek after being woefully underpaid for three seasons in a row at that point. If Charlotte is the team to give Walker that deal, they’ll probably have to make yet another money-saving move around this time next year.
For 2018-19, the move clarifies Charlotte’s center rotation, which was in disarray last season with Howard moving in on Cody Zeller’s starting role. He and Walker developed a nice pick-and-roll chemistry in their years together and Zeller’s do-it-all style just didn’t work on second units. He’s a very good supporting piece, but as one of the better players in Charlotte’s bench units, he and the team struggled. Zeller will vault back into the starting lineup and will stay there as long as he’s healthy. Some combination of Mozgov, Willy Hernangomez, and small-ball 5 Kaminsky will man the ship when Zeller is on the bench, either through rest or injury. Zeller is definitely an injury risk at this point, so having multiple options behind him will be good for Charlotte and was part of the calculus when they acquired Hernangomez last season. The Howard acquisition last season didn’t make a ton of sense on the court for the Hornets, but now they’ll be able to get back to a more sensible center rotation.