On Tuesday night, the Atlanta Hawks traded Dwight Howard and the 31st overall pick in Thursday’s draft to the Charlotte Hornets for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli, and the 41st overall pick in the same draft. Howard was one year into a three-year, $70.5 million contract he signed with the Hawks in last summer’s free agency.
Atlanta is already Plumlee’s sixth stop; he comes to the Hawks after less than half a season in Charlotte, who obtained him from Milwaukee in February. Belinelli spent slightly longer in Charlotte before being moved—the Hornets obtained him last summer in a trade with the Sacramento Kings. This is the first move for newly appointed general manager Travis Schlenk, who joined the Hawks from the Golden State Warriors on June 1. Taking in concert with Schlenk’s public doubts about Atlanta’s ability to retain Paul Millsap this summer, it seems on the surface that the Hawks are headed toward a rebuild.
Howard was signed last summer to provide a different option than Al Horford on both ends of the floor. He was brought in to be the pick-and-roll big man that would suck defenses into the paint, a defensive presence in the paint, and a force on the glass. He mostly fulfilled his duties, though he was completely played off the floor by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs. Even at his age, he played admirably for most of the season despite the consistent frivolous post-ups he demanded as part of the quintessential Dwight Howard experience.
His timeline simply didn’t fit with Schlenk’s vision of the future for Atlanta and it was a necessary move to get rid of him. In a vacuum, dealing Howard and getting out of the final two years of his onerous contract is a quality move—the only problem is that the Hawks took back almost as much salary as they gave up and got far worse on the floor as a result. A rebuild has two key components: losing games to get higher draft picks, and salary cap flexibility to make key moves when the time is right. Atlanta will certainly lose their fair share of games with the current roster, but taking on Plumlee’s contract voids them of that financial flexibility.
Plumlee has three years and $37.5 million left on the contract he originally signed with Milwaukee and every dollar of that contract is a bad one. Had he been on the Hawks last season, there’s a significant chance he wouldn’t have cracked the rotation, and yet he’ll pull down $12.5 million per year until 2020. He’ll see the floor this coming year for Atlanta out of necessity, but at no point will anybody feel confident that his play will be able to live up to his salary. For all of Howard’s flaws, and there were a few significant ones, Plumlee comes with the same flaws and more—he doesn’t match up to Howard offensively nor on the glass and is just as immobile defensively, but doesn’t come with the shot-blocking upside that Howard always had when he hung back in the paint over and over on pick-and-rolls.
Belinelli should be able to help the Hawks’ reserves offensively as a shooter and floor-spacer, but Mike Budenholzer and his staff will have a difficult time scheming around his defensive weaknesses. The Hawks have been steadily downgrading that shooter spot—this time last year, Kyle Korver was the main shooter in the Hawks’ lineup, but now they’ll have both Mike Dunleavy and Belinelli or just Bellinelli as pure shooters off the bench.
There is a question of how much playing time will be around for Belinelli with Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince looking like the starting wings and Dunleavy, DeAndre’ Bembry, and perhaps Tim Hardaway Jr. or another wing draft pick ahead of Belinelli in the rotation. The best part of getting Belinelli in the deal is that his contract is up after next season and he might be movable to a team that strikes out in free agency and absolutely needs a shooter of his abilities.
How does this trade affect the team’s current crop of free agents? Millsap is almost assuredly gone. Bringing him back on a huge contract with a worse team than last year doesn’t seem like the right long-term plan for Atlanta. Mike Muscala can now ask for more money from the Hawks—he’s a better player than Plumlee, is younger, and would likely be the starting center if he were to re-sign with the team.
The Hawks will probably tender a qualifying offer to Tim Hardaway Jr. to retain his restricted free agent rights, but he might be another guy the new management regime decides to let go. Ersan Ilyasova, Thabo Sefolosha, Kris Humphries, and Jose Calderon were all already on their way out, but this trade should confirm that none of those veterans will be back with the team next season.
The major upside of this trade is it clarifies that Schlenk has free reign to do as he pleases with the roster. Ownership was a driving force behind the Howard acquisition last summer and Tony Ressler had previously stated publicly that the Hawks would do whatever it took to bring back Millsap in free agency. Now that Schlenk is in charge, he’s dumped Howard and walked back Ressler’s comments about Millsap, pointing Atlanta instead in the direction of a rebuild rather than another mid-tier playoff finish.
In the midst of a rebuild, the Hawks felt as though they had to get rid of Howard by any means necessary, which would have been a good thing if they had gotten zero value back in exchange. Instead, Atlanta took on a major negative asset in Plumlee’s contract, almost as much salary as Howard was going to earn over more years, got significantly worse on the floor, and moved down ten spots in the draft.
It’s rare for a team to lose a trade both on the court and on their books, but the Hawks did both with this one. Perhaps Schlenk has another trade up his sleeve including the team’s newly obtained players and it’s impossible to know what other Howard trades were available, but at this point, his tenure as general manager is off to a rocky start.