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Why trading Dwight Howard was the right thing to do

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Dwight’s homecoming lasted one season but this was ultimately the right decision...

NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The homecoming lasted just one season.

On Tuesday night, just 48 hours before the NBA Draft, Hawks center Dwight Howard was traded to the Charlotte Hornets — along with the Hawks’ No. 31 overall pick — for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and the No. 41 overall pick in a deal first reported by Marc Spears of The Undefeated.

Howard was certainly a polarizing figure in Atlanta in his one season with the Hawks. Many fans loved the decision to bring Dwight aboard while many also disliked the decision to sign Dwight. There was a clear division from the day he arrived, so, as you can imagine, the fan base remains divided the day of his departure.

Like with any trade there are positives and negatives, and the majority of people are pointing their fingers at the contract of Miles Plumlee as the negative of this deal.

Plumlee signed a 4 year, $52 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks last July and that is not a great deal for a guy who’s not much more than a backup center in this league. But the thing is this: that contract has been moved twice now so it’s not untradeable, and an arguably worse contract in the form of Timofey Mozgov was also moved yesterday. Plumlee’s contract is not crippling even though it’s not ideal to have on the books.

But just because his contract isn’t ideal, doesn’t mean Plumlee is without use. He had good spells in Phoenix and Milwaukee before the Bucks made the mistake of making Plumlee the honorary third member of the ‘big-men earning 12+ million-per-year-in-Milwaukee-group’, joining Greg Monroe and John Henson. If the Hawks keep Plumlee or are unable to trade him, he’s well capable of succeeding as a backup center.

With someone like, oh say, Omer Asik... that is literally dead money that is just slowly (and excruciatingly so) dying on the New Orleans bench. Plumlee can actually play.

Look, I get it, I get it and I agree: Plumlee’s contract isn’t good, but it also isn’t as bad as people are making it out to be. $12.5 million only constitutes for just over 12% of the overall cap (projected to be $102,000,000), which, in today’s NBA, isn’t that much at all. For reference, Dwight Howard’s 2017-18 contract makes up 23% of the overall cap.

The other negative to this deal is that the Hawks parted with the 31st overall pick, which is a nice pick to have, sure, but people also have to realize it’s 31, not 1, 11 or 21 etc. You’re not guaranteed to draft a quality player at No. 31. Here are the 31st overall picks from the last five years: Jeffery Taylor, Allen Crabbe, Damien Inglis, Cedi Osman and Deyonta Davis.

There is only one of those players listed there that you’d want on your team and that’s Allen Crabbe (if you could look past his hefty contract). I understand that this is a deep draft but it’s really not the end of the world that 31 is gone.

The other thing you have to remember is that Schlenk was always prepared for a deeper second round pick like the one the Hawks now have (41). For the entire season with Golden State, Schlenk would’ve targeted second round gems in this area of the draft (40-50-ish) right up until the moment he knew that he was heading to Atlanta where his attention would’ve primarily shifted to the first round.

And, look, who’s to say there’s not another move to be made to move up on draft night, whether it’s in the first or second round? By no means is this the last move to be made.

But enough about the negatives, what are the positives to this trade? The positives to Dwight Howard leaving?

Basketball fit

Look, I have nothing personal against Dwight. He seems like a really nice guy off the court and his work with the community — wherever he has been — is fantastic, but in terms of pure basketball fit, it just didn’t work out for Dwight in Atlanta.

He killed the Hawks’ floor spacing and made an already poor offensive team even worse. His lack of versatility as an offensive player really limited the Hawks when they found themselves — as they often did — chasing games. There’s a reason why Dwight wasn’t a part of the lineup that recovered from a 26 point deficit in the fourth quarter in April’s showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. There’s a reason why he was benched down the stretch as the Hawks attempted to make a comeback in their Game 6 elimination game against the Washington Wizards.

Unlike in previous years with Al Horford, teams could just sag off Dwight when he operated/screened around the three-point line and the elbow because teams know he can’t shoot, and this allows opposing teams to focus more on penetration/help defense/defense on actual offensive players like Schröder, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Paul Millsap.

With Dwight now out of the picture, it allows the Hawks to look for a center who may, perhaps, fit Mike Budenholzer’s system better for (you’d imagine) much less than it cost to sign Howard.

No more confusion over roles, a cloud is lifted

As the year progressed, more questions about Dwight’s role and touches began to arise as it looked more and more as though he was an outsider in Mike Budenholzer’s system.

In the aftermath of the Hawks’ Game 6 loss to the Wizards (where Dwight was benched as the Hawks tried to save their season) was Dwight’s exit interview, and it wasn’t something that inspired confidence watching at the time as Dwight eluded to the fact he was clearly unhappy with being benched and unhappy that his role wasn’t perhaps as it was laid out to him before he signed not coming to fruition. He spoke very softly, like someone who didn’t sound as though he was happy, and not just because they lost their series with the Wizards.

I honestly believe Dwight was biting his tongue in that interview and that his feelings he made known were only the tip of an iceberg (with all the rough stuff, as is the case with icebergs, lurking beneath the surface).

You can only imagine how things were in the locker room with Dwight and his teammates and/or the coaching staff, and this cloud that was over the Hawks is now lifted. There’s no longer going to be discontent over touches or roles. As Tas Melas of NBATV’s ‘The Starters’ mentioned on Twitter, Miles Plumlee isn’t going to be fussed about roles as Dwight was.

With Dwight, there’s simply going to be drama. It’s seemingly inevitable. With Plumlee, there is none of that and that’s just nice to know.

The other aspect to this ‘cloud’ is that if Paul Millsap leaves, Dwight would’ve become THE man and THE veteran presence in that locker room. With all these young guys like Schröder, Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry and Atlanta’s 2017 draft pick/picks set to be with the club for years to come, Dwight may not have been the best guy to have as your locker room presence.

Chris Vivlamore of the AJC documented some of the incidents that Dwight got involved with in his season in Atlanta and, as he mentions, you don’t want that around a potentially even younger group of players should the Hawks want to move in a new direction.

A very important reason why the Hawks moved on from Howard.

A path to a re-tool/rebuild is now open

There were two obstacles in the path of the Hawks when it came to commencing a re-tooling/rebuilding period. One of those is Paul Millsap and how — because of his potentially massive contract and age — it might be better for the Hawks to allow him to walk for the sake of the long term (which I’ve previously written about). Since Millsap is a free agent, this won’t be a large obstacle to possibly navigate, but the other obstacle was: the contracts of Dwight Howard and Kent Bazemore.

Those are two less than ideal contracts long term (and clash with Travis Schlenk’s repeated view of “flexibility”), and at least one of those two contracts had to be moved in order to begin that process and that’s exactly what has happened as Howard has been dealt away. The Hawks did take on another bad contract in Plumlee in the process of sending Dwight away, but I expect Schlenk to deal with that accordingly (more on that later).

The bottom line on this point is this: with Dwight Howard on the team, you couldn’t really enter into a re-tooling/rebuilding phase but with Plumlee you can.

Ressler proving true to his word

When Hawks owner Tony Ressler hired Travis Schlenk to be his new GM, Ressler said that he didn’t hire Schlenk for him (Ressler) to make the final decisions and this trade was proof that wasn’t just nonsense from his mouth.

Trading a player as popular with the fans (and ticket sales, I’m sure) as Dwight was not a lightly taken decision — that’s a very significant move to make and Ressler could’ve stepped in if he wanted to. But he knows that Schlenk knows what he’s doing and understands that Schlenk knows what it takes to build a championship team.

Ressler has arguably interfered with the team’s decision making to its detriment, but this is an encouraging step that this might no longer be a problem.

What does this all mean and what’s next?

This was a very interesting trade. Schlenk was willing to take on a bad contract in the form of Plumlee, the expiring deal of Marco Belinelli (who would become the best shooter on the roster if he is to stay in Atlanta for the final season) and send away a very decent pick in the form of the 31st overall pick just to get rid of Dwight.

No contract is untradeable as long as you have the assets, and the Hawks do have assets. The Hawks don’t just own their own picks but Minnesota’s 2018 first round pick (lottery protected) and Cleveland’s 2019 first round pick (protected 1-10) as well as Washington’s 2019 second round pick. If the Hawks wanted to get out on the contracts of Miles Plumlee and/or Kent Bazemore they have the assets to do that. I expect one of those two players to be traded this summer. To keep both of those contracts, it wouldn’t line up with Schlenk’s “flexibility”, something that he said at his introductory press conference and cited again in a statement issued after Dwight’s trade.

Even if Plumlee and/or Belinelli aren’t traded, both could certainly prove useful in Atlanta. Despite his contract, Plumlee could play at a high level off the bench and Belinelli is a good shooter who has experience playing in a system similar system to Mike Budenholzer’s, when Belinelli was an integral part of Gregg Popovich’s 2014 title winning Spurs team.

As for free agency, this trade shouldn’t be the final word/indicator that Paul Millsap is/isn’t coming back. Schlenk’s comments about flexibility, his desire not to sign bad contracts and his recent comments about how Paul may receive offers higher than what the Hawks are able to make should give you more of an idea of how Schlenk and the Hawks are thinking in regards to Millsap’s free agency, rather than this Dwight trade.

Is a re-tool/rebuild coming? A re-tool, sure, that’s a fairly safe assumption to make at this stage. A full course rebuild though? That’s a little more difficult to assume for sure at this current moment, but it seems as though the Hawks are certainly headed for significant change.

Ultimately, this was the right thing to do. In addition to all of the reasons above, the Hawks simply couldn’t run this team again next season given its significant shortcomings last season. It still would’ve been too mediocre and it would’ve cost far, far too much money.

Schlenk has proven straightaway that he means serious business and isn’t afraid to make big moves that make people upset and uncomfortable. The type of moves that turns a franchises world upside down, and Dwight Howard is simply the first domino to fall.

The Travis Schlenk-era has begun with a bang. What will be his next move? With bated breath, we wait...