Hawks should pass on Dwight Howard this time

In the spring of 2011, one Hawks owners at the time insisted that the team was on the verge of announcing a trade for Dwight Howard. The deal fell apart.

In the summer of 2012, with Howard sending signals (again) that he wanted out of Orlando, the Hawks made another run at him. He ended up with the Lakers.

Pretty much every other NBA team was after Howard back then, too. He was a defensive force and a pick-and-roll terror. He was the kind of superstar player that's pretty much necessary to be a true championship contender.

Now the Hawks reportedly are after Howard again. According to ESPN, the Hawks and Celtics were the first two teams to secure a meeting with Howard for when free agency negotiations begin on Friday. The Hawks will get a chance to convince Howard to play in his hometown.

Much has changed for the Hawks since 2011. They have new owners. They are on their third general manager (fourth if you count the Mike Budhenholzer/Wes Wilcox reconfiguration). Yet the Hawks’ desire to acquire Howard has been a constant.

It made sense back then. It makes much less sense now.

Howard no longer is an MVP-caliber player. He still is an effective defensive player, but not one who alters game plans. Howard is not a pace-and-space big man in the Hawks’ mold, nor is he so dominant in the post that he creates space for others.

Hawks big men Paul Millsap and Al Horford (a pending free agent) are more valuable than Howard. He is not the player who finally would put the Hawks over the top. Among the current crop of free agents, only Kevin Durant fits that bill.

The Hawks want to meet with Durant but there’s been no indication that he will grant them an audience. With that being the case, everything Hawks do should be setting up for the summer of 2017 because that’s when they’ll have better odds of adding a player of Durant’s caliber.

An unprecedented number of superstar players are expected to put themselves on the 2017 market to cash in on the new, richer labor agreement. Durant is the only one available this year (not counting LeBron James, who isn’t leaving Cleveland). Next summer there could be six: Durant and James if they re-sign with their teams for one year plus an option, as expected, and also Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

A lot has to go right to sign one of those players but Hawks must do everything in their power to be in position to do it. The trick is to have a roster good enough that they’ll be attractive to those players and also the cap flexibility to sign them. The Hawks could take such a path by re-signing Horford and then adding other free agents with contracts that won’t stymie their cap situation for 2017.

I’m sure that Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox recognize this. Maybe they can re-sign Horford and add Howard with contracts that still would allow them to pursue one of the 2017 free agent superstars. I don’t see how if Howard, 30, is looking to cash in with one final big contract but let’s say they pull it off.

If the front court is Howard and Horford then what would the Hawks do with their best player, Millsap? He’s not a wing. Why slow the pace to feed Howard? Horford and Millsap are more efficient post players players than Howard, according to NBA play-type statistics, and they can do so much more.

Certainly Howard can help the Hawks. He still is one of the best in the league at rebounding, and that’s a major Hawks weakness. Howard can’t shoot but he still can finish: he ranked among the league’s leaders in true shooting percentage last season. He’s still a good defensive player.

I just don’t see how adding Howard provides enough value for the Hawks to overcome the drawbacks. The Hawks already are an elite defensive team without him and would be a mismatched offensive team with him. Plus, I still believe center Tiago Splitter can be effective for the Hawks after he essentially lost last season to injury.

The Hawks have long coveted Howard, but they should pass on him this time.