The Atlanta Hawks, historically, have had trouble acquiring star power via free agency. And in a summer where Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors shook the NBA to its core, Dwight Howard hardly seems to qualify.
But Howard's return to his hometown—where were first introduced to the 6-foot-10 slender teenage with a Hollywood smile in a no. 12 Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy jersey—couldn't have come at a better time.
The front office was unable or unwilling to come to terms with Al Horford on a long term deal, and Howard's signing a three-year deal was good insurance for their franchise cornerstone's eventual departure to the Boston Celtics. The move lets Atlanta remain competitive now without tying up the cap over a longer period of time.
Now, the Hawks job isn’t done. Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver still remain from the All-star foursome selected to represent Atlanta in New York a year ago. Kent Bazemore played the best basketball of his career this season and will return after signing a four-year $70 million dollar deal, and a confident Dennis Schroder steps into the starting point guard spot. But Atlanta still has a dearth of elite shot creation, and, even if Schroder takes a leap as the starting point guard, there's still a lack of depth behind him. But perhaps Howard diving hard in pick and rolls can generate more gravity than Horford or Millsap were able to muster working from the elbows.
And though Atlanta already had a quality defense, maybe Howard's different defensive skill set allows the team to shore up some weaknesses that appeared in the playoffs the past two seasons.
As the 2nd best defensive team in the league, you would be hard pressed to find a glaring weakness. Dwight’s biggest impact defensively will be providing rim protection for a team that ranked 2nd in rim protection field goal percentage holding a opponents to 44.9%. Atlanta also ranked first in blocks, defensive rebounds and field goal percentage defending 2 pointers. However, what we found out against bigger, longer, athletic teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers (swept) and Milwaukee Bucks (1-2 regular season series record) is that Atlanta doesn’t have the athletes to match.
Lebron is unstoppable when he has a full head of steam headed towards the basket, but the lack of size and shot blocking ability is apparent
Frye gets to the pain and because of his length there is no shot any Hawk has to contest.
As an individual, Dwight’s presence on the defensive end is far more imposing than Horford’s or Millsap; so opposing players are certainly more careful attempting a shot around the basket. Last season, when facing the champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Dwight’s defensive field goal percentage contesting shots less than 6 feet was 33.33%(2 games), compared to Al Horford’s 66.7%( 3 games). Watching Tristan Thompson gather several offensive rebounds for 2nd chance points throughout the semifinals was a reminder that Atlanta ranked 18th in that department, another area Howard’s 8.4 defensive rebounds per game will come in handy as opposed to Horford’s 5.5.
Tristan Thompson out hustles entire Hawks frontcourt using his instincts and leaping ability. Two attributes Dwight uses when rebounding the ball.
Dwight howard rebounding activity
Budenholzer will have to tweak the scheme just a tad bit in order to fully capitalize off of Dwight’s strengths by not allowing him too far away from the basket as Horford might off been at times. Now not saying Howard doesn’t have the capability to cover a guard off a pick n roll for a couple seconds, but it’s not exactly his comfort zone. Luckily for him he will be playing with a supporting cast that is instructed to wreak havoc on the perimeter in order to reduce easy driving lanes to the rim. Nevertheless, Howard is one of the best erasers in this league and has been for quiet some time.
Howard protecting the rim
The former three-time Defensive Player of the Year leaves an offense first, second, and then defense third mentality in Houston for one of the best defensive coaches in the league.
The Hawks finished in the top three in defensive rating over the past two seasons. What Budenholzer has done is highly impressive, given the lack of size and rebounding capabilities on the roster, and now he has a game-changing player with the ability to shore up both of those deficiencies. Atlanta has sorely missed that imposing presence anchoring the defense, sort of similar to what Tyson Chandler meant to those Dallas Maverick teams.
Al Horford and Paul Millsap did all they could in conjunction with a perimeter group who swarmed ball handlers with pressure defense to speed offenses up and out of their comfort zone, but they still lacked great size on the frontline. Howard is a rim protecting presence who should allow defenders to scramble less, maintain the integrity of their rotations, and clean the glass.
Another important note is that due to Budenholzer’s all hands on deck philosophy, he should be able to keep Howard's minutes in check.
Over the past couple seasons Dwight has not looked like the Superman we saw in Orlando, and much of that can be attributed to injuries (knees and back) and poor coaching philosophies he was forced to endure. However, he is not absolved of blame. Defense is all about effort and he looked disengaged at times last season. The injuries are something Atlanta is taking a risk on, but the mental stability is much more concerning. Howard discussed the situation in Houston on Inside the NBA on TNT during the playoffs.
"As a big, sometimes you want to feel a part of what's going on," Howard said on TNT. "If I could bring the ball up the court, shoot threes, go between the legs and do all that stuff, that would be great. But I have to rely on my teammates to get the ball. Now, there have been times where I've been upset and I've taken myself out of games in situations, and that's on me. I have to grow to be a better player at that."
Howard played 71 games and the entire first round, so the issue as much a mental block as physical. He averaged just 13.7 points per game, the second lowest of his career, on just 8.5 field goals a game, on a team that took 7,392 regular season threes during his tenure.
He now joins a philosophy that believes in ball movement and has shown they don’t mind playing through their bigs as Atlanta averaged the most post touches last season with 19.8 a game—two factors I’m sure played a large part in his decision. Howard will certainly find much more comfort playing with a willing passer in Dennis Schroder, especially in pick and roll situations, which will force defenses into a tough circumstance with shooters like Korver and Bazemore spotting up.
Howard in Pick and Roll
Howard rolling to rim
Schroder is much more prone to use picks to create better looks for his own scoring options. Last year he ranked third in frequency of using the pick and roll with a 54% rating, two spots above Chris Paul, and having five of his 11 points per game come from that play type. At this point in his career he is not threat to defenses shooting the ball and typically uses the likes of Millsap and Horford’s offensive prowess to his advantage. During Wednesday’s press conference Howard stated that Dennis reminds him "of a bigger Rondo." And said that the pick and roll game with both of them will be hard to defend.
Schroder to Horford
Howard may not be the midrange shooter that Horford was for Atlanta, but he certainly is just as effective rolling to the rim awaiting a pass from a point guard. Even with the lack of touches he this past season, Howard still shot 60% as a roll man during it all. If you have watched him long enough you understand that he’s quiet comfortable in pick and rolls, but the real questions lie in the post. We were all optimistic when he walked into los Angeles to work with all time leading scorer Kareem Abdul Jabaar, but that soon faded after he battled a bad back all season long and never quiet got in sync with Mike Dantoni. He then heads to Houston where 3-time NBA champion Kevin Mchale and the masterful footwork teachings of Hakeem Olajuwon’s awaited him, but that too never manifested.
So for Atlanta, barring any vast improvement in his low post scoring ability, Dwight is already one of the top offensive rebounders in the league, which can be a source for points, but he will be most successful in Atlanta’s offense stationed closer to the basket (he shot 69.6% from less than 5 feet last season) feeding off the playmaking ability from his teammates, rather if it’s a drive and dish or off a pick and roll. Budenholzer will still need to call his number for post ups, but idea is not to exhaust him too much by demanding he create his own offense majority of the time. Although the playing style was not in his favor last year, just 244 of his 976 points came from post ups.
Another luxury Howard now has is that this scheme also encourages interior passing between its bigs to create easier scoring opportunities—a similar scheme is currently ran on the Los Angles Clippers between Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan whenever they play two-man game from a hi-low or pick and roll setting. Millsap is a better floor spacer than Griffin, and close enough of as a passer.
Here we see a series of clips showing Blake Griffins passing abilities in the Hi-Lo situations.
Dwight did share time on the floor with a passing forward in Josh Smith; and Hi-Lo situations is something he’s shown no problem excelling in like Deandre Jordan.
Millsap to Horford
Howard is now 30 years old with a history of injuries and enough drama to fill a Netflix series. The Hawks, on the court, have been a stable franchise in recent years in search of a catalyst to hit a higher ceiling. Beginning a new chapter, Howard will now wear #8 in hopes that a return to his Atlanta roots will be just what his career needed. Recently, Howard spoke with the Atlanta Journal–Constitution about the ultimate goal in Atlanta and his motivation preparing for next season.
"I want to do whatever I can to bring a championship home," Howard said Tuesday, "I know it's not going to be easy. I've worked extremely hard this summer, every summer. I'm very motivated. I'm really ticked off about last season. I'm looking forward to coming back with a different mentality."