In late June, the Charlotte Hornets acquired eight-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli and the 41st overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
In what was a shocking return for a player of Howard’s stature, the trade signified just how far he has fallen in terms of his perception around the league. It also raised some questions about why the Hawks, his hometown team, might have gotten rid of him for virtually nothing. Other than his struggles on the court, was he also an issue in the locker room? That has not been revealed.
Now in a new setting yet again, the Hornets will look to give their new center a shot to reverse the course of his career in what should be a wide open Eastern Conference this season.
Howard’s addition likely means that Cody Zeller, who started 58-of-62 games last year and 163-of-197 contests over the past three seasons, will come off the bench.
One would assume that the 24-year-old Zeller wouldn’t take the news very well, but he actually took it in stride. “Now I don’t have to play him four times a season,” was his first reaction to the trade according to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer.
Apparently he hated playing against Howard, who is much more dominant than him physically.
“He’s still a double-double machine. Going one-on-one with him in the post, it’s tough even getting a shot off, much less score on him. He covers up for so many mistakes. He can not only cover his man, but if somebody gets beaten backdoor, or in a pick-and-roll, he can make up for it,” Zeller told Bonnell.
“We’re two different styles of players: He’s more physical, a shot-blocker and rim protector. I’m all over the place, working the pick-and-rolls, creating offense for the perimeter players,” Zeller explained. “I think we’re very different players, so it adds another layer to our team.”
Zeller isn’t only willing to happily concede his starting role to give Howard an opportunity, but he also believes that the move will benefit his long-term health and productivity.
“I got banged up so much, playing so many minutes,” claimed Zeller. “A lot of times, I’m outsized by 40 or 50 pounds. I’m used to it -- I can do it for games – but over four games in five nights or back-to-backs, my body starts to wear down.”
Usually players don’t admit that, but Zeller had no issue with it.
Due to their different styles of play, Zeller also believes that both he and Howard can make an impact in different ways this season.
“We’re both so competitive, which is why we got under each other’s skin,” he said. “I’m trying to be physical with him, while running around the court, and he’s trying to do the same with me. We’re contrasting styles, and neither one of us is going to give in.”
Head coach Steve Clifford gushed about Zeller’s development this offseason.
“Cody has had a great summer. He’s always been a great worker. He’s made steady progress every year,” he stated. “Cody is so good because of his screening and his rolling, as is Dwight. We don’t have to change a lot that way. They play offensively in a very similar manner.”
So, while Zeller is going to come off the bench (at least to start the year), that doesn’t mean he’s not going to play major minutes or make a positive impact. “He’s going to be a major, major part of things,” Clifford said of Zeller. “If we’re going to have an exceptional year, then both of those guys will play well.”
Zeller, Howard and the Hornets will open the regular season on the road against the Detroit Pistons on October 18. It will be interesting to see how Clifford divides the minutes between the two big men or if they will also see time on the court together.