For the first time in nearly a decade, the Atlanta Hawks will begin an NBA season with a player other than Al Horford as the team’s starting center. Horford now infamously elected to accept a four-year max offer from the Boston Celtics over a five-year, sub-maximum proposal from the Hawks, and while there is plenty of room for emotion on the subject, the 2016-2017 season will soon arrive and there is basketball to be played.
Since the clock struck 12:01 am ET on July 1st, the Hawks have made two significant free agent investments, and in the wake of Horford’s departure, it is time to deconstruct things a bit.
What in the world just happened?
Well, in short, the Hawks swapped Al Horford for Dwight Howard.
Yes, Atlanta has added two rookie wings that are intriguing for the future, and one of those players came as a result of a deal that sent Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers. When it comes to free agency, though, Atlanta’s current output is simply an exchange of centers while bringing back Kent Bazemore at an exceedingly reasonable price of four years and $70 million.
The point guard position has seen a major change, with Dennis Schröder being “promoted” to the starting job with Teague out of the picture and, as of today, no clear back-up option exists. Will the Hawks acquire another point guard via trade or free agent signing? Absolutely, but the safe money would be on that player simply acting as a stop-gap, rather than as a game-changer of any sort.
The Elephant in the Room
Al Horford is a better basketball player than Dwight Howard.
While there is certainly a faction of NBA fans that would disagree with the above sentence, I don’t find it to be a bold declaration. At one point, Howard was easily the best center in the NBA, tearing through the league as its most dominant defender and an exceptional offensive center, especially when it came to operating in the pick-and-roll. Now, though, Howard is 30 years old and coming off the worst season of his NBA career.
Is Dwight Howard an effective player right now? Absolutely. He has a career 29.1% defensive rebounding rate, and as many would be quick to point out, that is an area in which Atlanta has struggled in recent seasons. Howard is also an above-average rim protector, using his still solid athleticism and explosion to deter the opposition at the rim.
What Dwight Howard is not, however, is a better defender than Al Horford.
Howard’s powers have been weakened significantly by a combination of age, mileage and injury issues to both his knees and back. Occasionally, fans will be treated to a highlight-reel defensive play from Howard, but he has quietly transformed into an above-average defender that isn’t spectacular by any means on a game-to-game basis.
Horford, of course, has never been a highlight-reel defender, but he is the more mobile player that happens to be one of the smartest defenders in the NBA. Horford is always in the right spot and, to be honest, he is a wildly underrated rim protector due to the fact that blocked shots are only one (less than spectacular) method of evaluating this particular skill.
Offensively, Horford is also the better player.
Howard is “more efficient” in that he regularly posts field goal percentages in the upper-50’s, but that is much more of a function of his limited skill set than that of a knock on Horford. Boston’s newest big man (this isn’t fun to say) remains one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA, and Horford’s athleticism and screen-setting are wildly viable within the confines of a quality NBA offense. On the flip side, Howard is best utilized as a pick-and-roll finisher, and while he does that effectively, it will be the chore of Mike Budenholzer to convince Howard to fill that role in place of the post-ups that Howard will almost undoubtedly request.
To be clear, this is not a “slam Dwight Howard” event, but rather a reinforcement that Al Horford is very good at basketball. Howard, as he enters his 11th season in the NBA, remains a very nice player (and a better rebounder than Horford) that was perhaps the best available center on the market not named Al Horford, but make no mistake, this is a downgrade by any objective measure (including any number of advanced statistics) unless Howard suddenly regains peak form despite the wear and tear of both age and injury.
The Financial Stuff
If there is a bright spot here, it is that Howard comes at a lesser cost than Horford. Unfortunately, the difference is slight enough for 2016-2017 that it won’t greatly benefit Atlanta in terms of upgrading the roster for the coming season.
Howard’s contract runs only three seasons, while Horford would have been granted a five-year pact that took the versatile big man through his age-34 season. Still, Howard’s “discounted” rate stands above $20 million per season, and by nature of the Bazemore re-signing, the Hawks are effectively “capped out” unless the team moves on from the likes of Tiago Splitter and/or Mike Scott in the coming days.
Trades are, of course, possible, but Atlanta has a major need at backup point guard and if Splitter is moved for space, the Hawks will also be searching for a backup center that is superior to Mike Muscala (or Edy Tavares). That center issue would become doubly magnified, as Howard should be seen as something of an injury risk given the aforementioned injury history.
At this moment, the Hawks are left with approximately $3.8 million in salary cap space, with another $3.33 million that could be cleared immediately by declining Scott’s team option. The free agent market has been a spending party, though, and acquiring a serviceable backup point guard (and another forward?) would be a challenge at the $7 million range, much less for the $3.8 million currently available.
Did the Hawks botch this?
In a word, yes.
Dwight Howard, in a vacuum, is a perfectly reasonable addition to a playoff-caliber team, and at less than $24 million per season over only three years, it isn’t a ridiculous overpay. However, that contract did not appear to sit well with Al Horford, and even if the Hawks came to terms with the now-departed All-Star, the team was reportedly marketing Paul Millsap on the trade market as a way to lessen the damage of signing another high-priced center.
Could the three have co-existed?... maybe. I’ve previously argued (across various platforms) that a three-way split of the 96 minutes available at power forward and center would have worked for Howard, Horford and Millsap, but that removes any ego from the equation. One of these players, in a reasonable world, would have come off the bench, and no one in the NBA making north of $20 million would appear eager to make that sacrifice.
Plainly, this problem could have been avoided by passing on Dwight Howard in favor of other alternatives. Do the Hawks have any faith in Tiago Splitter? Maybe not, but pursuing lower-cost alternatives in the Bismack Biyombo/Ian Mahinmi mold would have been more cost effective and, perhaps more importantly, given the Hawks the ammunition needed to fire the full five-year max contract at Horford. Yes, the Hawks would have needed to clear more space (bye-bye, Tiago) in that scenario to make it work, but the ego management could have been easier.
“Running it back” was not a scenario that excited many Atlanta Hawks fans this summer, and it is easy to see why. The Hawks fell well short of challenging the Cavs in back-to-back playoff series, but Atlanta could have added an improvement at center (if that was the desired route) or left Splitter and Muscala in place while searching for a hybrid forward like Jared Dudley, Marvin Williams, Solomon Hill or even Luol Deng. That was the improvement that made the most sense, largely because the duo of top-25 players in Horford and Millsap would remain in place.
What happens now?
The Atlanta Hawks are worse on July 2nd than they were in May. Frankly, this isn’t up for debate.
The infusion of young talent with DeAndre Bembry and Taurean Prince brightens the future considerably, but when it comes to the current roster in terms of playing basketball in the present, it has been downgraded. No matter what you think of Jeff Teague, the duo of Teague and Dennis Schröder would be a sharp upgrade over Schröder as the starter and a run-of-the-mill NBA backup point guard. Throw in the fact that, again, Horford is a better player than Howard, and you have a problem in the short term.
Are the Hawks a playoff team in the East as currently constructed? Probably, but if you squint hard enough, it isn’t hard to find a way where that doesn’t happen. If Schröder plateaus... if Howard runs into injury trouble... if Bazemore regresses.... let’s just agree that it isn’t impossible to think this could happen. After all, the Hawks won “only” 48 games in 2015-2016 with a superior roster.
I will freely admit that the Hawks could have another trick or two up their collective sleeve, and this is an open-ended evaluation as a result. Atlanta absolutely has to add a point guard (or two) in the near future, and there are pieces (Splitter, Scott, Hardaway Jr., etc.) that could be moved without too much effort. Still, it would be difficult to find a trade on the market that greatly shifts this franchise’s direction for 2016-2017, as it is apparently resigned to hitching the wagon to Dwight Howard and Dennis Schröder.
On the eve of the NBA Draft, I roundly defended the front office for sending Teague away at an optimal time while prioritizing the future and extracting value from an asset that was likely moving on in a year. Today, the optimism of that mindset has largely evaporated, as the Hawks have added a declining asset at the center position while simultaneously opening the franchise up for another major decision with Paul Millsap beginning in 364 days.
The Atlanta Hawks are worse, both in the present and in the future, as a result of the moves executed in this summer’s free agency period.
It’s not your fault, Kent Bazemore.