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Dissecting the Dwightmare: past, present and future

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Surprised, yes, but one thing we know over the course of the last two and a half years, few things follow the conventional wisdom under Sean Marks.

The Woj Bomb that awakened America – or at least NBA Twitter – dropped at 8:23 Eastern Time this morning. In the aftermath of, not one, but two public criticisms of how Kenny Atkinson treated him, Timofey Mozgov was swiftly packaged and shipped out to Charlotte accompanied by the Nets’ 45th pick in Thursday’s draft and another second round selection, in 2021, all in exchange for Dwight Howard, the prodigal.

Upon the July 6 completion of the deal (when the league free agent moratorium ends), Howard will be a Net, Mozgov a Hornet ... and the Nets will have close to $17 million they didn’t expect to have in free agency next season. With Howard, Jeremy Lin and DeMarre Carroll all off the Nets’ books and Mozgov on Charlotte’s, Sean Marks has created what could be $65 million in cap space, enough for two max-salary slots for players with 7-9 years of experience in next year’s free agency.

This marks three pre-draft deals in three seasons for Marks and the Nets, who dealt Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers for 20th pick overall (Caris LeVert) the morning of the 2016 draft; then last year’s exchange with the Lakers, when two days before the Draft, they sent Brook Lopez and the 27th overall selection (Kyle Kuzma) to Hollywood for D’Angelo Russell and Mozgov.

But this deal is different. LeVert and Russell were kids, promising but still kids, who need time to develop. This has the potential to move things up in the rebuild. Let’s review.

While this is the same Dwight Howard once considered the second-best player in the NBA, it is not that Dwight Howard. He may be an eight-time All-Star, eight-time All-NBA team honoree, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a five-team All-Defensive center, but the most recent of those hallmark accomplishments came in 2013-14, where he reached the All-NBA Second Team as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Still, on one level, he is what the Nets need. Their on-court interior struggles may be at and end. They are acquiring a 32-year-old possible Hall of Fame center coming off his best statistical season in years: 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game through 81 appearances. It was his healthiest season in eight years.

One of those games was historic, the infamous 32 points and 30 rebounds at Brooklyn in March. It was only the second 30/30 games in the past 35 years. All those numbers are great. Beyond great; unique actually.

But with the Nets about to become Howard’s sixth team in seven years, fourth in four years, there has to be something else and there is and it’s no secret. Neither the Nets nor Hornets can speak publicly on the trade till after it’s official in nearly three weeks, but virtually everyone else has. For all that potential, trading for Howard and his baggage may be little more than a large, glorified salary dump.

Howard is set to make nearly $24 million in what will be the final season of his three-year, $70.5 million contract signed two summers ago, was acquired in exchange for Mozgov’s remaining two years and $32.7 million ... reuniting Timo with the man who awarded him the egregious contract, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak, formerly of the Lakers.

The Nets wanted rid of Mozgov and the $16.7 million he’s owed next season. He averaged all of 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds in Brooklyn before losing his starting job to Tyler Zeller, and appearing in only seven games after the turn of the calendar. He wanted out and the Nets did not want his $16.7 million on their cap next season.

Mozgov may have been pissed off, but Howard arrives with more baggage than a FedEx cargo plane, as his been the case most of his career. According to Brendan Haywood, a one-time Charlotte Bobcat (2012-2014) who is now a radio host on Sirius XM’s NBA Channel, the move was about a lot more than basketball and numbers.

“The locker room hated Dwight Howard,” Haywood offered bluntly. “I’m not sure if Charlotte is rebuilding or if they’re just trying to get Dwight Howard out of there. But it was clear, the locker room did not like Dwight Howard.”

In the same breath, Haywood says the reasons for Howard being shipped out to Brooklyn are the same ones that have followed D12 throughout the entirety of his 14 seasons.

“Hard to deal with, doesn’t accept responsibility, cries a lot, has bad tendencies, awful body language,” Haywood continued. “In Atlanta everybody heard that the team was cheering when Howard got traded. They knew they were going to be sorry. ‘We would rather suck than have this guy come back to our locker room for another year,’ and I’m hearing the same things in Charlotte.”

Haywood leavened his criticism by suggesting Howard could come around. It’s time, he said, for Howard, who’s averaged a double double every one of those 14 seasons, to “look in the mirror” and ask why he keeps getting traded on an almost annual basis.

And what Haywood said about Howard’s situation in Atlanta, Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer said about his time in Charlotte, offering another tough assessment in his column today.

“I was speaking to a team source in mid-season – this was months before the Howard trade,” Fowler wrote. “And he told me of the Hornets players’ frustration that Howard simply wouldn’t run the play that was called, sometimes in key last-minute situations.

“Also, for a man with a superhero body, Howard’s screen-setting was often “terrible,” according to the source. Howard and former coach Steve Clifford – who was always seen as ‘The Howard Whisperer’ – also did not have nearly as perfect a relationship as was advertised and had at least one notable confrontation. And I saw firsthand some of the eye-rolling that Howard’s teammates did when they spoke about him.”

Needless to point out, Howard has the world to prove, particularly when he’s being inserted in a culture that values the collective and camaraderie.

Howard must know this is his last chance to revive what once looked like a great career. He’ll be (finally) playing in New York, a market he craved when the Nets first went after him in 2011, a long time ago for him and the franchise. It’s not just about legacy. He’s an expiring, and at 33 (after December) he’ll be looking for his last contract. Lots of incentives.

And he can play, at least on occasion. It wasn’t just that 30/30 game. He taught Joel Embiid a few lessons when they met back a couple of weeks before he destroyed the Nets and Jarrett Allen. Howard finished with 30 and 12, with four blocks. Embiid had a decent game, 18 and 5, but Superman dominated. (Of course in the other three games vs. Philly, Howard scored only 26 points.)

Can he make the Nets “competitive,” Sean Marks watchword for the season? It’s a big question.

“At the start of the season you asked how was progress going to be measured. I [said] it was never going to be measured with wins and losses. That’s not something myself was looking at or ownership was saying,” Marks told beat writers assembled at the HSS Training Center at his end-of-season presser. “At some point, that’s going to change. Whether it’s this coming year or a year in the future where we [say] wins and losses, now we’ve got to start winning games.”

This move suggests the need to win is now. Building while winning, hopefully. And speaking of building, what does this mean for Jarrett Allen?

Allen led all rookies in blocks, was seventh in rebounds per game, averaged 10.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 23.8 minutes through his 31 starts. At his best – a 16-game stretch from January 23 to March 1 – he posted 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per outing while shooting 67.2% from the field.

But he got winded and got hammered by players like Howard. Can the two co-exist? Twin Towers or a tandem? Allen is working on his three-point shooting this summer — he’s said it’s the team’s top priority for him, other than improving his strength.

At the very least, the Nets and their fans have to believe the two will dramatically improve defense around the rim.

“Always we can improve our rim protection,” Marks offered in his 2017-18 wrap-up. “Jarrett is a big part of that and really got better as the season went on. I think size is a part of that when you’re talking rim protection.

“We have to find the right personnel that fits the defense,” Marks continued. “Right away we already have a good grip on where we have to get better. I think our activity and just our general energy defensively – we were 30th in the league in forcing turnovers.”

Howard would appear to qualify as “the right personnel” for the job.

So how many minutes will they share the court? Atkinson has said that the 4 and 5 are “interchangeable” in the Nets offense, but when Howard is on the floor, will the Nets, 26th in iso’s last season, revert to having Howard use his considerable strength and experience to dominate and keep everyone else glued in place? If they don’t give him those opportunities, will he be mature enough to deal with it ... and that a player 12 years his junior has already been written in as the franchise’s center of the future?

You’re better off predicting when the aliens will come to earth.

For now, Brooklyn will continue as, “The Island of Misfit Toys,” as our own Anthony Puccio once called them, but one with some hope. Russell arrived with a chronicled history of dysfunction in Los Angeles, his fault or not, and had zero issues, zero complaints in Brooklyn. Howard is playing for his last big contract, so as much as he has to gain, he’ll have to lose if that eye-rolling and individual play continue in the nation’s busiest and most savvy media market.

And if he does play it well, some of that cap space could be earmarked for him. In MarksWorld, you never know. “We already know we have an ownership group that is ready to fork out the big money when that timing is right,” Marks said back in April.

On that note, who’s next!?