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Howard could be ideal NBA free agency target for Warriors

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The Warriors have expressed a desire to return to a playbook that served them so well during their emergence as an NBA power. They’re ready for another trip to the used center market.

That’s the best place to find what they want, a veteran big man, a part-timer, capable of supplementing the offense while getting his hands dirty on defense. It’s where they found Andrew Bogut and, a few years later, Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee.

It’s a place where, this offseason, they might rummage through a rack and find Dwight Howard, a 6-foot-11 big man who will be an unrestricted free agent.

Yes, that Dwight Howard. And we realize his criticism-praise ratio in recent years is about 70-30.

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Howard is the starting center for a Los Angeles Lakers team in the NBA Finals. His $2.56 million salary this season makes him one of three players on the roster working for the veteran’s minimum in hopes of being in this position. He’s one win away from his first ring.

As his paycheck indicates, Howard realizes his days atop a marquee -- a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, named to eight consecutive All-Star teams -- are over. He’s 34, two years removed from back surgery and contends with occasional barking from his knees. He averaged 19 minutes per game, with only two starts, in the regular season. In these Finals against the smallish Heat, he starts and plays a few minutes and rarely is seen again.

 

He’s profoundly imperfect yet addresses most of the needs the Warriors will seek in someone to share minutes with Marquese Chriss, Kevon Looney and a dash of Draymond Green.

Like Bogut and Pachulia, Howard doesn’t flinch at using physicality. He’ll bump and bang and blab his way to making enemies on the opposing bench.

Like Bogut and McGee, Howard embraces the role of lob threat on one end, rim protector on the other and rebounding at both.

Like Pachulia, Howard sets a mean screen and makes liberal use of his inner goon.

Even as the NBA trends toward smaller lineups, the Western Conference has no fewer than eight imposing 7-foot centers: Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Jusuf Nurkic of the Portland Trail Blazers, Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Jonas Valanciunas of the Memphis Grizzlies.

This explains the need for a veteran big with a defensive mentality. Someone to engage in the required hip-to-hip, hand-to-hand combat. Like Howard.

The idea of playing Howard alongside Green is immensely more appealing defensively than offensively -- unless Draymond can get his 3-ball, the percentage of which has declined four consecutive seasons, back to respectability.

All of which brings us to the question of whether Dwight is what coach Steve Kerr likes to refer to as “a good fit,” someone who may have some baggage but is adaptable enough absorb the team’s culture. Some do, some don’t. JaVale did. Nick Young did not. DeMarcus Cousins had moments of each.

Truth is, Howard has been a misfit in at least a couple stops.

After eight mostly terrific seasons in Orlando, he was traded to the Lakers, where his perceived indifference -- Howard likes to joke and smile -- clashed with the fabled intensity of franchise player Kobe Bryant. Howard lasted one season, after which he became a free agent and signed with Houston. A Rocket for three seasons, he often clashed with franchise player James Harden.

Howard is on his fourth team in four seasons, from the Atlanta Hawks to the Charlotte Hornets to the Washington Wizards and back to the Lakers -- and that’s not counting a few offseason hours with the Brooklyn Nets in 2018 and a few offseason weeks with the Grizzlies last year.

The constant movement, the declining numbers, a sprinkle of off-court drama and a few locker-room conflicts have left Howard increasingly subjected to criticism. It has been easy to find NBA types that roll their eyes at the mention of his name.

It’s a little harder now that Howard is playing mostly positive minutes in the postseason, particularly against Jokic and the Nuggets in the Western Conference finals. Dwight is playing with LeBron James, which can be difficult, and has not been openly castigated by Rajon Rondo. Howard accomplished a partial image rehabilitation and has been effective enough to generated leverage from a situation that many initially questioned.

 
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Unlike recent offseasons, when demand for his services was relatively soft, Howard should have options in unrestricted free agency.

History suggests the Warriors know how to deliver a strong sales pitch. They tried it on Howard back in 2013, failed, and instead landed Andre Iguodala. That worked out quite well.

Seven years later, Howard is a lot cheaper and no longer a 35-minute-a-night player. Given the needs of the Warriors, who have at their disposal a vet-minimum salary (about $2.7 mil for Howard) and a mid-level exception slot just under $6 million, he’s worth a close look.

If they like what they see and hear, and Howard passes the pertinent tests, the Warriors can address a need without breaking the bank.