The Atlanta Hawks made easily the most surprising move of the Mike Budenholzer era last summer when signing free agent Center Dwight Howard to a three-year contract worth $70.5M. Howard was coming off of a 2015-16 season with a Houston Rockets team that had underachieved across the board. The perception around that Rockets team was almost completely negative and both Howard and James Harden, the supposed star power of that team, walked away with damage to their respective reputations that each would need to address.
Harden entered the 2016-17 season with a clean slate in the form of a new head coach (Mike D’Antoni) at the helm of a Rockets team that would go on to win 55 games and secure the 3rd seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Howard would get a fresh start with a Hawks organization known for its strong organizational culture and an on court style best described as a meritocracy made up of ingredients including offensive spacing, ball movement and prioritizing the best shot that can be had on every possession with no concern regarding which player would have the opportunity to take that shot.
Harden would go on start this season’s All-Star game and is in the thick of maybe the most hotly contested MVP race in the history of the award. His Rocket’s team entered the 2nd round of Western Conference playoffs matched up with the San Antonio Spurs. The re-tooled Hawks would win 43 games, which was an over-achievement based upon many of he preseason predictions. It’s probably fair to characterize Howard’s All-Star consideration as a modestly narrow miss; he seemed to be in a group of a handful of players vying for the final couple of spots on Eastern Conference reserve team.
Results versus Expectations
The 2016-17 Hawks campaign would result in a second consecutive season in which they would win fewer games and exit the post-season one round earlier than the preceding season. That in conjunction with an uncomfortable look at best, as Howard would sit for significant stretches of fourth quarter play during the Hawks first round exit to the Washington Wizards (including the entire fourth quarter of the closeout game at home) would seem to indicate that the results were anything but satisfying to all parties involved.
But when making an objective effort to isolate Howard’s individual play, a distinctly different result can be seen. Every single statistical indicator that I found suggests that the Hawks got exactly the player they should have expected to be getting entering this season. I won’t bore you with every detail of the more than 50 data points I reviewed. But you can look at how nba.com quantified his play this season here versus how it measured his play last season here. Likewise, basketballreference.com supports a similar position as can be seen here.
A couple of the more interesting data points (from a deeper dive than can be seen in the links above) include the following. Howard was more productive in the pick and roll this season than he was last season on an almost exactly number of possessions per game. (Note that this does not measure all activity in the pick and roll, just pick and roll plays that results is him receiving the ball and taking a action that can be categorized by the nba.com statistical model.) This is extremely interesting to me when you consider that last season he was largely in the action with an All-NBA back court player (Harden) and this season with a first year starting point guard in Dennis Schroeder. He was also more active and productive in put back opportunities this season as compared to last season.
He was also better this season than last season by the more developed ESPN statistical measures (subscription required) including Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Value Added (VA) or Estimated Wins Added (EWA). The conclusion that seems appropriate to take from this is that the Hawks should be pleased if not at least satisfied with the activity and production they got from Howard. Even defensively, opposing shooters that Howard defended inside of nine feet from the rim shot at lower percentages this season than last season.
Howard did play only 6.9 minutes per game in the 4th quarter this season as compared to 8.9 minutes per game in the 4th quarter last season. But it is my view that this is the result of the league taking a significant leap forward this season offensively with an ever increasing advancement in spacing and shooting. Players of Howard’s profile at this point in the league simply can’t play when a team needs to increase the number of possessions needed per minute as to try to successfully catch an opponent with a double-digit lead, for example, in the closing stretch of games.
Did the Hawks make Howard better?
The short answer is probably a yes. Although the amount of effort that Howard put into his play can’t be denied. With all of the mixed (at best) perceptions about how the season ended for Howard and his team, it is probably lost on many of that Howard shot a career best as measured both in field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage; he also had his best mark at the free throw line among his last 4 seasons.
To tease out a view of his than be seen as a result of a collaborative effort consider that Howard shot almost 50 percent fewer hook shots this season as compared to last season. (I find that significant.) He also increased his number of shots at the rim and reduced the number of shots he took between 3-10 feet (where there is certainly overlap with the hook shot data). In short it would appear that he was coached into better shot selection, that he accepted the coaching to at least a reasonable degree and the result was career best shooting from the field.
Did Howard make the Hawks better?
This one is certainly tougher to tease out statistically. As mentioned, the Hawks won fewer games and exited the playoffs earlier than last season. Additionally when you measure the team’s performance by point differential they took a huge step backward from +3.6 last season to -0.9 this season. So I think the consensus is that the results that were hoped for were not realized. But it is important to note that the Hawks offensive rating slipped only 0.7 points from last season to this season, but that resulted in them slipping from being a nearly league average offense to a bottom five offense. Reminder: the league took a huge step forward offensively this season.
Also, despite the Hawks defensive rating slipping from 98.8 last season to 103.1 this season, the Hawks remained a top five defense. The theme here is the same.
So there is no clear evidence, in my view that Howard negatively impacted the Hawks’ play in any way that should not have been expected.
Regardless of who the decision makers were or upon what consideration the decision was made, Dwight Howard is here. I also think it is fair to say that we can see that across the board he is exactly the player that they should have expected him to be if even improved in some areas. Both the Hawks as an organization and Howard as a player need to collectively understand that the league is moving at an even faster pace than very likely expected (by all parties involved) away from a model in which a player like Howard can be a centrally core part of a foundation upon which can build for increasingly sustained success.
As for them to be able collectively move toward a brighter future, these realities must be accounted for in terms of how Howard looks to continue to improve his game (likely in marginal areas) and, most importantly, in terms of how the Hawks MUST look at their roster construction going forward.
This is the best retrospective I was able to achieve on this subject. Here is to hoping player and team can do as well if not better as they look back at how and why the resulted landed where they did.