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Is Dwight Howard a Fit for the Clippers’ Third Center Spot?

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The Clippers keep getting linked to veteran center Dwight Howard. But does Dwight make any sense for them?

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

When I wrote about candidates the Clippers could sign to fill out their roster a week and a half ago, I had one word to say on Dwight Howard: “No”. Since that time, the Clippers have not done much to fill out the rest of their roster, not after JaMychal Green agreed to come back that day. They did sign rookie Terance Mann to an NBA contract, and brought on Amir Coffey as a two-way player, but have made no moves in free agency. While Joakim Noah remains my favorite addition as the Clippers’ 3rd string center, Dwight Howard’s name continues to be mentioned with the Clippers, including by Dwight himself. So, here are some somewhat more extended thoughts on Dwight on the Clippers.

Dwight Howard is a 1st ballot Hall of Fame inductee. He’s one of the best centers of all time, a defensive menace in his prime who was underrated offensively. However, despite being just 33 years old, Howard has not made an All-Star team in six years, and has spent most of the past half-decade on mediocre teams. Is he still a positive impact player? Let’s do a not-so-deep-dive into some stats.

When looking at his raw numbers, Howard appears to still be a very good player: just two season ago, he put up 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game for the Hornets, and scored at a solid efficiency rate. Even last year, in a lost season for the crumbling Wizards, Howard averaged 13 and 9 in the handful of games he did play. His block numbers are way down from where they were in his prime, but he’s still at least somewhat of a deterrent at the rim. All well and good.

Even advanced numbers aren’t that unfavorable to Howard. In the 2017-2018 season with Charlotte, he posted a perfectly good RPM of 0.64, with an RPM of 0.9 the season before in Atlanta. Neither of those figures are terribly impressive (especially since RPM seems to somewhat favor centers), but both paint him as a positive impact player. Net Rating is somewhat more mixed. The Hornets were a +1.4 Net Rating with him on the court, and a -2.2 with him off, for a strong +3.6 overall, but the Hawks were -2 with him on the court, and +1.5 with him off, which is not very good. Still, most numbers seem to suggest that he was a mostly positive or net-neutral presence on the court in Atlanta and Charlotte.

Things shifted last season, in an admittedly awful situation with the Wizards. Howard played in only nine games, missing the rest with back injuries (for a time, his back was so messed up that he couldn’t sit down) and was a massive negative on the court by every metric (Net Rating, RPM, BPM, etc.). Now, you could write that off as a loss, a single season for a bad team in which Howard was injured. But the slip in play is concerning, as are the back issues, which have been a problem since he was on the Lakers over six years ago. In the previous six seasons, Howard had missed more than 11 games just once, making him somewhat of an iron man. But considering that he’s entering his 16th season, and has played big minutes most of his career, how reliable will Howard be at age 34? Right now, it’s impossible to say.

The other problem for Howard, and one that has dogged him since his latter days in Orlando, is his locker room presence. Most of the reports on him are that he’s more of an irritant than downright toxic, but it seems clear that part of the reason he’s turned into a journeyman the past few years is his attitude. He is at least a reasonably effective basketball player, yet no team wants to keep him. This Clippers team has a strong, established culture, and will be really good, so maybe they could absorb Howard and be fine. On the other hand, why introduce a potentially harmful element to a solution you know to be potent and effective?

That leads into his fit on the Clippers as a whole. For the final spots on their roster, the Clippers are presumably looking for steady veterans who will be ready when called upon. This is especially true for any center they might sign, as Doc Rivers went away from Ivica Zubac in the playoffs, and there are reasons to doubt his ability to hold up against top-notch centers from a physical standpoint. Any veteran center the Clippers pick up as their 3rd string guy needs to be able to bang with guys like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, and DeMarcus Cousins in the post (Howard is fine here), be available when needed (questionable), and still be fine with not playing very much at times (doubtful). Howard has demanded touches and playing time in years past, and while he’s claimed to have changed.... well, seeing is better than believing. Howard just does not seem to be a fit with the Clippers culture, and his severe injury issues last season are a detriment to his potential usefulness on the court as well.

Comparing Howard to a guy like Joakim Noah is interesting. Noah is actually 10 months older than Howard, which astonished me, and has played in far fewer games than Howard the past few seasons. However, because Howard started his NBA career earlier, and played heavier minutes, he is has played nearly double the regular season minutes Noah has. And, while Noah hasn’t played much in recent years, that’s more been because of odd team situations than serious injuries. He was also excellent last season, albeit for a tanking Memphis Grizzlies team. Simply put, I trust him to be more ready to play games than Howard next season, and to be better in the games that he does play. Additionally, while there’s a question as to whether Dwight would buy in to being a 3rd stringer, Noah seems like an ideal fit with the gritty, hard-working Clips, and does all the little things required to win games.

I think Dwight Howard remains a useful NBA player. He can still score around the basket, rebound the heck out of the ball, and at least block a few shots at the rim. On the other hand, he just doesn’t seem to fit what the Clippers need from their third strong center spot. As a minimum-salaried player on the veteran’s minimum he wouldn’t be *bad*, probably, but he might cause more headaches than he solves. My simple “no” 10 days ago was overly simple, yet ultimately still sums up my thoughts on the Clippers signing Dwight.