It's Not (Entirely) Dwight Howard's Fault That No One Wants to Trade For Him
Dwight Howard was once a unicorn, but now he's just a regular, aging, big man.
© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Stop me if you've heard this one before: after an early playoff exit, Dwight Howard could be playing for a new team next year. Yup, we've had this discussion in Orlando, Los Angeles, Houston, and now Atlanta. It makes sense that Howard and the Hawks would want to move on from each other; he's a former superstar with a few good years left looking for his first ring, and the Hawks are a rudderless team that can make the playoffs, but not much more than that. It's a bad fit, and as the Hawks likely consider a rebuild, getting Howard's $23.5 million contract off the books would seem like the right move. There's just one problem: no one seems all that interested in attaining his services.
That is...not a lot!
So, why such little interest? Well, Howard's reputation as a difficult teammate lingers in the air when we have this conversation, but in this case, it honestly might not be Dwight's fault. By any measure, Dwight Howard—while certainly past his prime—is still a very good basketball player. This season, he enjoyed something of a quiet comeback, as his rebounding and efficiency were both up form his final year in Houston. Also, his .181 Win Shares per 48 minutes was well above the league average of .100. So, if Dwight can still ball, why are there no takers? Well, a lot of it might come down to scarcity, or more accurately, the lack thereof.
One thing that defined Dwight's prime was just how much better he was than every center in the game. During the early 2010s, things were so bleak at the 5 that the NBA adjusted the All-Star voting rules so voters could simply select three front court players instead of two forwards and a center. In the time since that rule was made, however, the depth at the center position has improved greatly. Veterans like Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan picked up their game to the point that they became no-doubt all-stars, while the league has also been blessed with young studs like Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid. There's also developing talents like Steven Adams and Myles Turner, who aren't quite stars, but are already key contributors with the potential to become something greater. After years of slim-pickings among big men, the NBA now finds itself inundated with quality centers. As such, the demand for a long-in-the-tooth vet like Dwight just isn't what it would have been a few years ago.
That's not the only problem; there's also the question of which teams Howard could actually help. Yes, he's still a good player, but ask yourself, is there any team that could credibly say "if we get Dwight, we can win a title?" Consider the teams who are just on the edge of being able to challenge the Warriors and the Cavs; the Clippers already have a better center than Dwight with DeAndre Jordan, as do the Jazz with Rudy Gobert. What about the Raptors? Well, Dwight is still a better center than Jonas Valanciunas, but not by as much as you'd think. Valanciunas was good for 7.9 win shares, and a PER of 20.1, while Howard had 8.3 and 20.8. Combine that with the fact that Howard is seven years older than Valanciunas, and any added value Howard would bring is negated. The best spot for Howard among playoff teams would likely be the team that just knocked Atlanta out, the Washington Wizards. Howard would be an upgrade over Marcin Gortat, who, though solid, has never been an elite player. Additionally, Gortat is almost two years older than Howard. The problem here is that the Hawks wouldn't have much purpose for Gortat in this transitional phase, and even though Dwight would make the Wizards better, he still wouldn't raise them to the level of the Cavs. At a time when centers are plentiful, and the Cavs-Warriors hierarchy is so difficult to break, it stands to reason why there is very little demand for a player like Howard.
Of course, that doesn't mean he'll necessarily be stuck in Atlanta. Teams make trades for all kinds of reasons that have little to do with basketball. Sometimes, teams make plays for big names like Howard for the sake of getting fans in the seats, and there's also the possibility that some GM might say "he's Dwight Howard, he can help us" without any care for how he'd fit into the system, or how much he'd improve the team. That being said, it makes sense that the market for Dwight is currently so dead; there's just no team with an immediate logical need to acquire his services. But at least Dwight can take comfort in that it really isn't his fault. He played as well as he could have reasonably been expected to at this point in his career, and the notion that his back problems would lead to an early retirement has been more or less vanquished. Dwight's problem is that good centers are simply not as hard to come by as they used to be, and there's no team that could realistically jump into the Cavs-Warriors vortex by trading for him. The lack of interest in Dwight isn't some cosmic justice for years of being a difficult teammate, it's just the product of a basketball market that no longer has much use for him.