Hawks agree to deal with Howard, move in new direction

The Hawks wasted little time in making a major move.

Dwight Howard wasted little time in choosing a new team.

After a lengthy afternoon meeting with the Hawks on the first day of NBA free agency, the eight-time All-Star center agreed to a three-year, $70.5 million contract with his hometown team Friday night, according to a person familiar with the situation. The deal has an average annual salary of $23.5 million, the same figure Howard was due before he opted out of the final year of his contract with the Rockets this summer. The new contract cannot be signed until the end of the NBA moratorium July 7.

It is unclear what the move means for Al Horford, the Hawks’ four-time All-Star center, who began meeting with other teams after he also became an unrestricted free agent. Horford reportedly met with the Rockets on Friday afternoon and Celtics in the evening, and approximately 15 teams have shown an interest.

Hawks management said before free agency that re-signing Horford was a priority, and the team accounted for a maximum deal in its salary cap. However, with the Howard signing, the Hawks have flexibility to make another major move — perhaps a trade involving either Horford or Paul Millsap. Theoretically, Horford could play power forward and Millsap could move to small forward in the starting frontcourt. However, that could present problems. A trade would alleviate that problem and add to the roster, especially with at least two teams interested in Horford.

A contingent from the Hawks met with Howard at a Buckhead restaurant Friday afternoon. Hours later, the deal was agreed upon. Howard agreed to come home.

Howard, who was born in Atlanta, entered the NBA out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy as the No. 1 overall pick by the Magic in 2004. He has had several opportunities to return home and play for the Hawks, but declined each time. Most recently, he passed on the Hawks’ pitch and signed with the Rockets in 2013. However, Howard recently opted out of the final year of that contract and reportedly was looking now for a contract in the neighborhood of that annual salary.

The 30-year-old appeared on SiriusXM Radio on Wednesday to discuss his free agency.

“I don’t know right now where I will be and I haven’t counted any team out,” Howard said. “I’m going to go into free agency open-minded. The best thing to do is to take the emotions out and figure out what is going to best for basketball for the rest of my career. I just want to be in a position where I can be who I am, be free and help a team win. I still have a lot in me to offer. … A couple bad seasons doesn’t really justify who I am as a person or a player.”

Howard would give the Hawks an inside presence. He has led the NBA in rebounding five times (2009-10, 2012-13) and in blocks twice (2009-10). There also are questions about how he would fit in the Hawks’ pace-and-space offense.

In his 12 seasons, Howard averaged 17.8 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. Last season, his averages fell to 13.7 points and 11.8 rebounds. His 835 rebounds were 103 more than the Hawks’ leader Millsap. Howard reportedly also was to meet with the Celtics. According to people close to Howard, the Hawks were his first choice.

The NBA free-agent market opened for business Friday. There were plenty of deals reached around the league on the first day. For the Hawks — and players who might be coming or going — it was a day for meetings early in the day. In addition to the meeting of Howard and Horford, Kent Bazemore met with the Rockets as he began to explore his outside opportunities.

The Hawks can still sign Horford to a max deal of five years, $153 million. The Hawks entered free agency with $25 in salary cap space after accounting for a potential new Horford deal. Also, the Hawks could exceed the salary cap to sign Horford because they hold his Bird Rights.

Both Horford and Bazemore would prefer to remain with the Hawks. With the signing of Howard, the Hawks can sign only one.

The Rockets put on a full-court press for Bazemore immediately at the start of free agency at 12:01 a.m. The small forward and the Rockets met for two hours. Included in the meeting were Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, current star James Harden, general manager Daryl Morey, coach Mike D’Antoni, owner Leslie Alexander, vice president Gersson Rosas and CEO Tad Brown.

Reports indicate that Bazemore will command more than $15 million annually as a free agent, a huge increase from the two-year, $4 million deal he signed with the Hawks. His salary figures to climb after agreements reached by players such as Evan Turner (four years, $70 million) and Evan Fournier (five years, $85 million).

Horford met with the Rockets on Friday the afternoon and the Celtics in the evening. A max contract from another team for Horford would be four years, $113 million. The Celtics are prepared to offer such a contract, according to reports.