<a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/23851151/dwight-howard-headed-charlotte-hornets-brooklyn-nets">The deal</a>
Nets get: Center Dwight Howard
Hornets get: Center Timofey Mozgov, 2018 second-rounder (No. 45) and a 2021 second-rounder
<a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/team/_/name/bkn/brooklyn-nets">Brooklyn Nets</a>: B+
From the Nets' standpoint, this is an interesting exchange of cap space this summer for more of it in 2019. At $23.8 million in the final year of a three-year contract that has already taken him to three different teams, Howard makes $7.8 million more than Mozgov (also joining his third team in three years on his current contract). However, Mozgov is also under contract for $16.7 million in 2018-19, and with this trade Brooklyn just cleared all of that as cap space.
So basically, the Nets have doubled their cap dollars, assuming they did not plan to stretch Mozgov's contract at any point. That's not necessarily as huge a win as it sounds, because cap space is so limited throughout the league this year. I estimate that a dollar will buy twice as many wins this summer as it will in 2019, when Brooklyn will have plenty of competition for free agents.
From a timing perspective, the Nets angling to be players in the summer of 2019 makes more sense. For the first time since trading for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on draft night five years ago, Brooklyn actually holds its own first-round pick, meaning there's no rush for the Nets to improve this season.
Brooklyn can be a much bigger player in free agency next summer, when the team has just one player currently under contract for more than $2.7 million, wing Allen Crabbe. At this point, the Nets project to have up to about $65 million in cap space, which would be enough to make max offers to two players with 7-9 years of experience, such as Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard. (To get there, the team would have to renounce cap holds for restricted free agents Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and D'Angelo Russell, who are extension-eligible this summer entering the final season of their rookie contracts.)
Alternatively, Brooklyn could also consider making use of Howard, DeMarre Carroll ($15.4 million, with plenty of on-court value) and Jeremy Lin ($12.5 million coming off a ruptured patella) as three of the largest expiring contracts available before the 2019 trade deadline.
Thus far, we've treated this strictly as an exchange of salaries. The difference is that while Mozgov's salary provided almost no value -- in fact, he rated 0.7 wins worse than replacement level last season now that I'm adjusting for the higher replacement value of centers -- while Howard can still play. Even with that adjustment to reduce the value of centers, Howard still posted 5.0 wins above replacement player (WARP) during his lone season in Charlotte, though he doesn't figure to be as effective going forward at age 32.
The downside for the Nets is that Howard also still expects to start and be a big part of the team. That could be an impediment to the development of second-year center Jarrett Allen, who showed promise last season as a lob finisher (he shot 60 percent on 2-point attempts) and shot-blocker (he was slightly more prolific at blocking shots per attempt than Howard).
There's also the issue of bringing Howard into the locker room of a team relatively short on veteran leadership. So on balance, it might be slightly better for Brooklyn if Howard were merely a contract. Those concerns aside, this is still a winning deal for the Nets in the long run. They're set up to have a much more interesting summer in 2019.
<a href="http://www.espn.com/nba/team/_/name/cha/charlotte-hornets">Charlotte Hornets</a>: D+
From the Hornets' perspective, the financial incentives in this deal were reversed. After adding Howard last summer, Charlotte was feeling the squeeze of the luxury tax. The Hornets projected to enter this offseason with about $750,000 in wiggle room below the tax and just 12 spots on the roster filled. Something had to give. The question is whether new GM Mitch Kupchak made the right sacrifice to get there.
The $7.8 million saved in this trade will allow the Hornets to use most of their non-taxpayer midlevel exception to fill out the roster and still avoid the tax. The cost is twofold: swapping Howard for Mozgov has weakened Charlotte's center rotation, and adding Mozgov's $16.7 million salary for 2019-20 limits the Hornets' flexibility a year from now.
In fact, Charlotte now finds itself in a worse position than one year ago, when the Hornets swapped the similar but smaller contract of Miles Plumlee (who makes $12.5 million each of the next two seasons) along with expiring salaries for Howard. Plumlee provides slightly more on-court value than Mozgov and will make less money, so they would have been better off just standing pat than making the combination of trades.
Charlotte did add depth at center in the meantime by acquiring Willy Hernangomez from the New York Knicks at the trade deadline. Despite defensive limitations, Hernangomez (who recently turned 24) was overqualified as a third center, averaging 9.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in just 16.8 minutes per game over the final 13 games of last season after the Hornets shut down Cody Zeller. Clearing a rotation spot for Hernangomez is the best part of this deal for Charlotte.
At the same time, the Hornets need ample depth at center because of Zeller's injury history. He played just 33 games last season, experiencing soreness in his left knee after undergoing surgery on the meniscus in that knee in December. Howard's presence helped Charlotte stay afloat without Zeller; the team went 22-27 in games he missed during 2017-18 (a .449 winning percentage) after winning just three of the 20 Zeller sat out in 2016-17 (.150).
If and when Zeller misses time next season, the Hornets' options at center besides Hernangomez are unappealing. They could play Mozgov, whom Kupchak liked enough to sign to this albatross contract as GM of the L.A. Lakers two summers ago. (Mozgov's contract was surely one of the reasons Kupchak lost his job shortly thereafter.) Or new head coach James Borrego could turn to Frank Kaminsky in the middle, though such lineups were outscored by 7.8 points per 100 possessions last season, according to data from NBA Advanced Stats. (Charlotte had a more reasonable minus-1.1 net rating when Kaminsky played power forward.)
Assuming the Hornets intend to compete next season -- and making this trade signals they do, because otherwise they could have found a way to get under the tax line that would have been more painful on the court but better financially in the long run -- another long-term Zeller injury could dash that hope.
Going forward, Charlotte's financial picture isn't much brighter. If Kemba Walker leaves as an unrestricted free agent next summer, adding Mozgov's salary to the books means the Hornets will have limited cap space at best. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams both pick up 2019-20 player options, Charlotte would likely be limited to using the midlevel exception. And if Walker re-signs at anything close to his maximum salary (an estimated $32.4 million), the Hornets will likely be right back in the situation of needing to dump salary to avoid the luxury tax.
Given those options, I'd probably rather have just looked to buy out Howard and stretch his remaining salary instead of making this trade if the Hornets felt dumping him was their best way to avoid the tax. This trade doesn't offer Charlotte enough financial benefit in the long run to justify making it, from my perspective.