The Atlanta Hawks made a bold move in aggressively pursuing and ultimately bringing Dwight Howard home in free agency. The subsequent departure of Al Horford means that the Atlanta Hawks will look quite a bit different when they take the floor next season.
One of the best things about the Howard addition was the terms of his new contract. This will be an aspect that is overlooked, but his 3-year, $70.5 million deal gives them the necessary flexibility to retool if the situation arises. Contract aside, Howard the player still brings value to the court.
Howard will be a significant boost on the boards
We will start with his best attribute which is his proficiency as a rebounder. Howard averaged 11.8 rebounds per game last season. For context, that is 2.8 rebounds more per game than the number Paul Millsap posted which led Atlanta last season. Howard had a 20.6 percent rebounding rate while Millsap led Atlanta at 15.7.
Atlanta’s rebounding deficiencies have been well chronicled. They averaged 42.1 total boards per game last season, which was 24th in the league. Houston, with Howard, averaged 43.1 per contest and was 19th overall.
One area where Howard could be a tremendous help is in the offensive rebounding department, where Atlanta was dead last in the league at 8.3 per game. Part of that was by design, as Mike Budenholzer often opts to focus on transition defense over crashing the glass. Budenholzer isn’t likely to change his philosophy much, but Howard’s presence will necessitate a change in strategy. Often Atlanta would have five players stationed outside the paint on the offensive end of the floor. Howard by nature will play closer to the basket and thus he should continue to grab offensive rebounds at a reasonable rate. Howard averaged 3.4 offensive boards per game by himself last season which was almost half of Atlanta’s per game total.
With a healthy Howard, Atlanta should have no trouble climbing to become at least a league average rebounding team.
Howard the Defender
While Howard is well positioned to add a substantial boost on the boards, the Hawks shouldn’t expect much of a boost defensively. Atlanta was the second best team in the league last season in terms of defensive rating. The versatility of Paul Millsap and Al Horford gave the Hawks a big advantage in snuffing out opponent’s pick and roll game.
Howard isn’t a slack defender either, but this was an underrated part of Horford’s game. Numberfire’s Dale Redman took a look at the differences between Howard and Horford on the defensive end of the floor.
Examining Atlanta's rim protection numbers, the duo is relatively equal. Howard posted 1.6 blocks per game and a 4.1% block percentage. Horford was just a bit behind at 1.5 blocks per game and 3.6% block percentage last season. However, if we look at defensive rating, Horford blows Howard away, posting a 98.2 rating, compared to Howard's 105.1 clip.
According to NBA.com’s player tracking numbers, opponents shot 49.7 percent at the rim against Howard and 49.4 percent against Horford.
Howard is a bigger and more rugged defender that is better suited at battling in the paint. However, there is a good chance that Atlanta will miss Horford’s mobility and ability to close out defensively and shut down opposing pick and rolls.
Howard the offensive player
Fans expecting an offensive revival from Howard may be in for a disappointment. He has been trending downward as an offensive player for several seasons now. Part of that is due to fit with the Lakers and the Rockets, but a lot of it has to do with his health. Howard averaged just 31.3 minutes per game last season and Budenholzer would be wise to protect him from a minutes standpoint given his history of back and knee injuries.
While a return to his Orlando days as a primary offensive weapon are long gone, Howard could see a bit of a bump offensively with the Hawks. Howard averaged only 8.5 shot attempts per game last season with the Rockets but given Atlanta’s equal opportunity approach offensively he could see a few more opportunities. However, it is a give and take situation and Howard never really should be more than the No. 3 or No. 4 scoring option on the floor at this point of his career.
According to NBA.com, Howard averaged just 0.82 points per possession last year on post ups. For contrast, Horford averaged 0.89 points per possession on post-ups albeit on far less attempts. Per Numberfire, Howard’s average shot attempt was 2 feet, 6 inches from the basket. The days of Atlanta spacing the floor with the center position are over and Budenholzer will have to adjust accordingly. Atlanta will need to put Howard in good situations to score and they will need him to raise his efficiency.
Howard averaged 1.10 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls but those only made up 9.3 percent of his overall possessions according to NBA.com. That number will likely increase with the Hawks and it should but they will need buy-in from Howard. Conversely, Horford was only slightly better in pick and roll possessions averaging 1.13 points per possession but those types of plays made up 24.3 percent of his possessions.
If Howard makes any improvement on the offensive end of the floor, the Hawks would be best suited for it to come at the free throw line. Howard shot just 48.9 percent from the line last season and is a career 56.8 percent shooter. He attempted 6.7 free throws per game last season and if there are no changes to the hack-a-shaq strategy in the NBA, his free throw struggles could force him to the bench in crunch time situations.
Howard in the locker room
Perhaps the biggest concern to adding Howard is the effect he has on the rest of the team. While some may offer him the benefit of the doubt now that he is in Atlanta, noisy exits in Orlando, Los Angeles, and Houston can’t simply be ignored. Howard in his career has shown to be a player that is highly sought after but then wears out his welcome quickly. But, can he change and will a return to his hometown of Atlanta make a difference?
Knowing that his reputation was in the toilet, Howard embarked on a media tour prior to free agency this summer to help rebuild his reputation. He did a 14-minute interview on TNT’s Inside the NBA that Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck described as more of an Intervention than an interview. In the interview, Howard insisted that he wasn’t a bad guy, admitted to sometimes being disengaged but said that he wanted to win. That is the most important part for the Hawks going forward. Is Howard willing to do what it takes to win?
Still, Beck found skepticism throughout the league that Howard really could change. Howard’s biggest complaint in Los Angeles and Houston was that he viewed himself as a primary scorer.
Howard views himself as a primary scorer and a franchise star, while the rest of the NBA views him as a third option who should focus on defense.
That disconnect, and Howard's ingrained reputation as court jester, make his free agency uniquely complex. He won't be the biggest star on the market. He might be the most fascinating, and the riskiest.
More interestingly many team executives that talked with Beck projected a starting salary for Howard this summer in the $10-15 million range. That is a far cry from the $22.5 million that Howard will make next season in Atlanta.
Since arriving in Atlanta in 2014, Budenholzer has gone out of his way to preach the importance of character and chemistry for his Hawks. The team has been reluctant over the last three years to make in-season changes for fear of upsetting that chemistry. Signing Howard appears to be a departure from that however, the Hawks reportedly did extensive homework and found reason to buy in.
Told ATL, ever obsessed with chemistry, did a ton of due diligence on Dwight. Vetted him like a VP choice. They saw findings as reassuring.— Kevin Arnovitz (@kevinarnovitz) July 1, 2016
Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that while meeting with Hawks officials, Howard expressed a desire to win and a "willingness to be coached."
The Hawks better hope that this is a changed Howard and that his focus is now to fit in. If he is, then he can quiet his critics and there is no better place to do that than in his hometown. However, if it is all a smokescreen and Howard hasn’t really changed, then the Hawks may have taken a serious step backwards.