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Dwight Howard contract brings additional questions for Atlanta Hawks

Hello, Dwight Howard. What now?

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks

Dwight Howard is going to be a member of the Atlanta Hawks. That appears to be a certainty, as multiple reports indicate Howard will sign a three-year pact valued at more than $70 million to play for his hometown team.

While this could be the type of “big splash” that many Hawks fans have been in search of in the recent past, there are many layers to the roster situation as it stands today. With that, let’s take a look at this acquisition with a bit of depth.

The Good

Dwight Howard remains an effective asset on a basketball court.

The 30-year-old center just completed a season in which he appeared in 71 games while averaging 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, and Howard made those contributions while acting as a part of a Houston team in great turmoil. While Howard isn’t nearly the dominant force of his prime years, he is an excellent defensive rebounder (29.1% both for his career and in 2015-2016) that can act as a strong rim protector on the defensive end of the court.

Offensively, Howard isn’t an elite force at this point, but he can also be useful. Utilizing Horford as a back-to-the-basket player in the post isn’t the best idea, but if the big man can be convinced to play to his strengths as a pick-and-roll finisher, his contributions could fit nicely in Atlanta.

The Downside

Ah, yes, the ugly part.

Howard will turn 31 years old in December and, regardless of the roster around him (we’ll get there, I promise), this contract is an overpayment. The salary cap is, in fact, going up (shocker!) but committed nearly $24 million to Howard annually at this stage is aggressive to stay the least, and can be described that way for a number of reasons.

First, Howard has gone through the decline that you may expect from a 30-year-old that entered the NBA straight from the high school ranks in Atlanta. 2015-2016 was easily Howard’s worst season since his rookie campaign in 2004-2005, and that was visible in both his production and his defensive impact. The once-rangy big man has lost a great deal of mobility in recent years, and while some of that is age, Howard has been plagued by issues with his back and knees, making it reasonable to wonder if the decline will continue to come at a rapid rate.

It is fair to say that Dwight Howard was the best center left standing (aside from Al Horford) on the market with Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond (who was never escaping Detroit) re-signing with their respective teams. Still, it would be (very) easy to argue against investing three years at a premium rate for a player who would have a tough time justifying that rate of pay even if 2015-2016 was the baseline and not a benchmark for further decline.

And, of course, there is that pesky roster issue...

Where do the Hawks go from here?

The big question for Atlanta is what happens with Al Horford, and that is quite obvious. Horford is a consensus top-five free agent on the market, in addition to being a top-25 player in the NBA today, and he has been a cornerstone of the Hawks franchise for nearly a decade. The signing of Howard will undoubtedly inspire many to conclude that Horford is long gone, but that isn’t necessarily accurate.

First and foremost, Atlanta still has the ability to sign Horford using his Bird Rights, and that allows the team to pay up with a five-year max contract, regardless of the money assigned to paying Howard. No other NBA team can match Atlanta’s offer in this regard, and if that matters to Horford, there is every reason to think he could return.

However, the move to acquire Howard could have double meaning. The Hawks could add Howard as something of an insurance policy for a potential Horford departure, while also leaving the door open for Horford to return. Novel concept, right?

The Atlanta Hawks must fill 96 minutes at the power forward and center positions on a nightly basis in 2016-2017 and beyond, and in short, there is no reason to think that the trio of Dwight Howard, Al Horford and Paul Millsap could not co-exist. Mike Budenholzer is famous (or infamous?) for limiting the playing time of even his top-flight players, and provided Tiago Splitter (and, potentially, Mike Scott) were moved, Budenholzer could be looking at a premium three-man rotation up front. The trump card in this scenario is Horford’s ability to play the power forward position, and if all three players landed 30-34 minutes per game, Atlanta would be working from a position of strength.

The wrench in this equation would be the fact that one of these players would, in all likelihood, be asked to come off the bench provided the team wants to avoid the clear spacing and athleticism issues that would come from sliding both Horford and Millsap “up” a position. Presumably, the Hawks could have discussed this possibility with Howard before agreeing to terms, and Atlanta would have every reason to keep Horford in the loop as well. We aren’t privy to the specifics, but from a basketball standpoint in 2016-2017, this is the best-case scenario.

Then, naturally, there is the potential that Horford walks away and signs a massive deal with the Thunder, Rockets, Celtics or another NBA team. In that event, Atlanta provides itself with an above-average starting center in Howard for the short term and, in one swift motion, distills any notion of a rebuilding effort following a Horford departure. Personally, I would advocate hard for a “blow it up” scheme if Horford vacates the premise, simply because the ceiling is not high enough with Howard on board and Horford elsewhere to justify the new addition. However, this move aligns Budenholzer and, perhaps more importantly, Tony Ressler firmly against that line of thinking.

Finally, there is the Kent Bazemore conundrum. Adding Howard to the mix basically ensures that one of the Bazemore-Horford duo will not be back, with the possibility that neither return. If Horford is convinced to remain with the Hawks for the next half-decade, Atlanta will be left with trade options (again with Splitter and/or Scott as bait) to fill the backup point guard gap and potentially add another warm body on the wing.

What we do know is that acquiring Dwight Howard means that the Atlanta Hawks aren’t ready to rebuild, and that is the case whether Al Horford is wearing volt green or not. The deal has its faults, particularly if Howard continues to decline as he moves into his early 30’s, but it does not necessarily spell the end of the Horford era, nor does it preclude the Hawks from fielding a highly competitive team in 2016-2017 and for the future.

Dwight Howard is on board, but the next move or two will tell the full story.