As Thursday’s NBA trade deadline nears, the belief here remains as it was a month ago, a week ago, yesterday: The Atlanta Hawks will talk to a lot of teams about a lot of players but won’t do anything of consequence. The reason: Even if they’re not nearly as good as they were last season — and they aren’t — they’re not yet to the point of tearing things up and starting again. Because starting again would mean getting bad for a while, and new ownership isn’t apt to opt for that.
But as we while away the next 48 hours, let me address one player who keeps popping up as a possible Hawks target. You know him. He’s from here. He’s Dwight Howard. He used to be really good. He’s less good now.
It was only two summers ago that the New Hawks made a pitch for Howard, who was a free agent. Danny Ferry (remember him?) and Mike Budenholzer (who hadn’t yet coached a game) met with Howard in Los Angeles, and Budenholzer and Howard were believed to have bonded. No matter. The big man signed with Houston.
The Rockets are 137-82 since signing Howard. The Hawks are 129-90, and that’s with Al Horford missing the final 53 games of the 2013-2014 season. Both teams advanced to conference finals last season: The Hawks were swept by Cleveland; the Rockets lost 4-1 to Golden State.
If the playoffs started today, the Hawks would be the fourth seed in the East; the Rockets would not qualify. They’ve already fired Kevin McHale. Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff recently described his team as “broken.” All of that cannot be traced to Howard — James Harden must take some blame — but the point is clear: Even with two guys commonly described as superstars, Houston is 27-28.
The Rockets don’t fit. Harden is a high-usage guy — he’s third among NBA players in that advanced stat, behind Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins, ahead of LeBron James and Stephen Curry — which means he has the ball a lot. Howard is tied for 158th in usage. He’s fifth among Rockets.
The Hawks aren’t a high-usage team. Only Dennis Schoder, the backup point guard, ranks higher than 30th in the league. (He’s 22nd.) The Hawks are second in the league in assists. The Rockets are 17th. As a consequence, the man they paid $118 million to sign is tied for 59th among NBA players in scoring.
Howard is still an excellent rebounder (No. 3 in the league), but he’s not the force he was as a younger man. If he were, the Rockets wouldn’t be trying to trade him. As we know, the Hawks are awful at rebounding, but adding Howard — which would surely mean trading Horford — would address one problem while gumming up the greater works.
Howard doesn’t pass very well. He can’t shoot beyond 10 feet. He doesn’t space the floor. He’s a low-post center in a league that now encourages big men to hoist 3-pointers. The Magic reached the 2009 NBA finals by ringing Howard with shooters and daring defenses to double-team him. (Mike Woodson, alas, always took the bait.) Nobody needs to double-team Howard anymore. He’s not going to score 50 points. (His high for the season is 30 — in a loss to the Hawks.)
A team that acquires Howard cannot count on rebuilding around him. He’s 30. He can opt out of his contract this summer. The list of teams desperate to sign him in the summer of 2013 was long. The list this time will be short. In a league that has few true centers, he’s no longer the best even by default. (Cousins is far superior and five years younger.) The demand for Horford, who’s 29 and who can fit any team, will be greater than for Howard.
For the Hawks to swap Horford for Howard, they’d be punting on this season — even in his prime, Howard was difficult to assimilate into an offense — and probably the next few. The guess is that they’ll have a greater chance of re-signing Horford over the summer than they would Howard, and they’d be much more willing to offer a max contract to a guy they’ve known and loved since 2007 than to a half-season rental.
Not many of the trade scenarios linked to the Hawks — Jeff Teague for George Hill, say — make much sense. Anything involving Howard makes no sense.