After losing Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Kirk Hinrich in the off-season, nobody knew how the Hawks would be this season. They did make some good acquisitions like Ryan Kelly, Taurean Prince, and Howard, but for a team who has utilized strong chemistry to win games each of the past two seasons, it was difficult to be optimistic about this team being led by such a mercurial center like Dwight Howard.
Howard had fallen out with each of his past three teams: Orlando, Los Angeles, and Houston. In Orlando, Howard forced his way out through a trade, and at-the-time head coach Stan Van Gundy was fired. The Magic have not made the playoffs since. In Los Angeles, Howard clashed with the hard working Kobe Bryant, and Howard left after the Lakers traded for him the previous off-season. Then-coach Mike D’Antoni was fired after Mike Brown was fired five games into Howard’s lone season with LA. In Houston, Howard was vocal about not getting enough post-ups, and his play significantly declined to the point where the Rockets let him walk. Kevin McHale was fired after eleven games into the 2015-16 season, and interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff was also let go of.
Howard has gained a fairly deserved reputation as a team killer. Not only that, but also that Howard’s fiery personality was no longer outweighed by his production, which has decreased since his days as an annual fix in the NBA’s all-star game. Last season, Howard averaged the fewest amount of points (13.7) since his rookie season average of 12.0. His defensive rating of 104 was the worst since his rookie season mark of 104 as well.
The 2015-16 playoffs were perhaps Howard’s low-point. While the Rockets were matched-up against the historic 73-9 Golden State Warriors team, Howard completely shied away from the moment. His win shares per 48 minutes mark of .046 was under half the league average .100, and the Rockets were outscored by 24.9 points per 100 possessions while Howard was on the court. That wouldn’t be so terrible if the Rockets were 24.7 points per 100 possessions better with Howard off the court.
All of these things coupled with the fact that Howard turned 30 last season is horrible for Howard’s perceived value around the league. Players with Howard’s large size and injury history have a horrible track record past age 30. It is why the player who was the hottest commodity during the 2013 off-season was signed to a contract lower in total dollars than contracts of role players like Allen Crabbe, Bismack Biyombo, and Ryan Anderson this off-season.
Atlanta took the risk of bringing on Howard, and it is paying major dividends. Howard is achieving relative personal success, particularly on the defensive end. Howard is leading the league in blocks per game (3.3,) offensive rebounds (17,) defensive rating (84,) rebounding percentage (25.9%,) and block percentage (9.7%.) Howard is also 2nd in defensive box plus/minus (+6.5,) sixth in rebounds per game (12.3,) and seventh in defensive win shares (0.3.)
Howard positive impact on the Hawks as a whole are what are even more astounding. The Hawks are an Easter Conference best 3-0, with large margins of victory over Washington (15,) Philadelphia (32,) and Sacramento (11.) Howard is at the forefront of it all. His league leading defensive rating has helped lead the Hawks to have the best defensive rating as a team as well at 89.5. Howard’s presence inside on offense has also helped lead the Hawks to be the 8th best offensive team in the league with a rating of 109.0. With Howard on the court, the Hawks are out scoring their opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions.
This success is sustainable, and even able to be improved on. Howard has done all of these great things while only averaging 10.3 points on 45.5% shooting in 26.3 minutes per game. As Howard learns Gregg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer’s complex offensive and defensive schemes, Howard will get more playing time, and receive a more prominent role on offense. The small sample set of data, three games, also creates artificially low averages. Howard received over 30 minutes of playing time in the games against Washington and Sacramento compared to just 19 minutes against Philadelphia. Howard’s averages in the two competitive games are 14.5 points, 15.0 rebounds, and 50.0% shooting.
This team is also structured well around Howard. Unlike the defensive fiasco the Rockets became last season, Howard is surrounded by solid defensive players in Atlanta. Dennis Schroeder and Taurean Prince are young and tenacious defenders. Thabo Sefalosha and Kent Bazemore are established defenders, and Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, Walter Tavares, and Tiago Splitter are all returning contributors to the Hawks 2nd best defense from last season.
On offense, the Hawks have been an elite three-point shooting team since Budenholzer took over. Korver and Sefalosha are both established three point shooters, especially Korver, and they are shooting a combined 55.6% this season so far from behind the arc. Rookie Malcolm Delaney (50%,) and veterans Kris Humphies (50%) and Dennis Schroeder (40%) have been shooting well also. Three point shooting has been a major key to Howard’s on-court success, and the Hawks are currently in the top ten in three point percentage at 36.8%.
The Hawks not only compliment Howard well, but Howard fixes what were the teams biggest weaknesses from last season. There were five statistical categories that the Hawks finished in the bottom half of the league in: two pointers, two pointers attempted, free throws, free throws attempted, and rebounds.
Howard exclusively shoots around the rim, so when the Hawks need something going to the basket, Howard will be there to finish at the rim. Dwight Howard also lives at the free throw line. He has led the NBA in free throw attempts four different years. His success rate at the free throw line is not the best, but he is good for serving the purpose of getting to the line and getting opponents in foul trouble. Rebounding is something that Howard has led the league in, but five times instead of the four. Howard also is 1st in rebounds among all active players, and his 12.7 per game for his career is 14th all-time. Needless to say, Howard will help out in this department as well as the other four the Hawks have struggled in.
Dwight Howard has all the tools to make his homecoming to Atlanta a successful one. The Hawks are loaded with skilled young players who can play both sides of the ball. At this point. Howard’s greatest obstacles are his health and his attitude. If Howard can manage both of these things well, they have one of the best chances to dethrone Cleveland in the East.