NBA Free Agency opened on Friday with a bang. That bang was the sound of armored trucks across the nation buckling under the weight of cash being delivered to newly signed NBA players, followed by a chorus of protest from fans and talking heads throughout the country.
The Atlanta Hawks joined in on the big free agent splash by signing Dwight Howard to a 3 year, $70.5 million contract. Howard was born in Atlanta and has been a free agent target of the Hawks before. There have been both positive and negative reactions to the Howard signing in the media, but in a vacuum this is a pretty good contract. With the cap jump, owners have to reach the salary floor and this will lead to big contracts throughout the NBA. Shouting “That’s a lot of money!” isn’t an acceptable reaction to contract announcements without context.
The immediate reaction to the deal was to view the Howard contract as a sign that Atlanta was moving on from longtime center Al Horford. The Hawks are still trying to pursue Horford and could be able to dump enough salary to sign him by losing Sefolosha, Splitter, and possibly Mike Scott. Horford is still a free agent, however, and until he is signed we will evaluate Howard’s contract without Horford on the roster. Let’s start with the negative.
To those who think this is a miracle salve for a perceived weakness on the defensive end, and especially defensive rebounding: the Hawks rebounded 74.6% of their opponents’ misses last season which, yes, is pretty bad. That put them at 25th in the league. The team that finished last? Howard’s former team, the Houston Rockets. Is that entirely (or even mostly) Howard’s fault? Probably not, but Atlanta’s rebounding rate certainly shouldn’t fall on Horford’s shoulders either. The Hawks struggled on the defensive boards primarily because of an aggressive defensive scheme which values steals and contested shots over defensive rebounding, and which earned them the second best Defense Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions – which takes into account points given up for those missed defensive rebounds) in the league.
That defensive efficiency was achieved in part because of the mobility of Atlanta’s bigs – the ability to hedge or switch out onto guards in the pick and roll and the ability to make rotations and challenge shooters. Howard was fast enough to do that in his prime but with age and (several, serious) injuries he has lost a few steps.
None of this, however, addresses the biggest issue with Howard: his attitude has been a big issue with every NBA team he has played for since Orlando. It is fair to ask whether playing with Kobe and Harden was the main reason for Howard’s unhappiness in LA and Houston. The answer is probably no. The Kobe criticism is understandable – he can be extremely difficult to play with – and maybe Harden takes up too many possessions on offense. The main issue Howard has had with both the Lakers and the Rockets, though, is his refusal to run the pick and roll. With the Lakers, D’Antoni planned on using Nash-Howard pick and rolls as one of the pillars of their offense. Howard was unwilling to run the pick and roll with a top-five all time pick and roll guard because he wanted to get the ball in the post. He did the exact same thing in Houston.
In 2016 Dwight’s .82 Points per Possession when posting up ranked 73rd out of 104 players with 50 or more possessions used in post ups while using the 13th highest number of possessions in the league. He’s flat out bad at posting up. In the pick and roll, however, he averaged 1.10 points per possession – 32nd out of 116 qualified players and tied with pick and roll phenom Andre Drummond.
For reference, the best regular season offense in 2016 (Golden State) scored 1.125 points per possession. The worst (Philadelphia) scored .966 points per possession. For those of you that aren’t math inclined, that’s a difference of .159 points per possession. The difference between Howard in the pick and roll and Howard in the post (.28 PPP) is almost twice as big as the difference between the best and worst offensive teams in the league.
Now for the positive side: Dwight, despite all his flaws, is still a good athlete. He is a very large man who still jumps well and can, I believe, still be an effective rim protector. More bad news: I believe that without any numbers backing it up, as Dwight allowed opponents to score on 49.7% of field goals when he was defending the rim, which slots him 24th among centers with over 1,000 minutes played and is worse than both Horford and Millsap’s percentages. Still, Atlanta has a much better perimeter defense than Houston did last year and plugging the rare leaks in the faucet of the Hawks’ defense should prove much easier than stemming the tide of Houston’s busted fire hydrant.
Offensively, if Budenholzer can convince Dwight that the pick and roll is in his best interest, the Hawks’ starting lineup could be a real threat. Schröder’s quickness combined with the threat of a Howard alley oop should make a great pick and roll combination. The issue could be surrounding the duo with enough shooting to prevent extra defenders from creeping into the paint and helping on the pick. If Bazemore and Millsap continue to improve from 3-point range and Korver returns to form, the Hawks could put up points in bunches.
Dwight in 2016 has the potential to become a very rich man’s 2011 Tyson Chandler – a rim protecting monster on defense and a terrifying lob threat on offense. The question is whether he realizes that the best way for him to help the team is to minimize post touches on offense, and whether he cares about what is best for the team in the first place. Regardless, Howard at $23 million per year isn’t a bad deal in a world where Timofey Mozgov is getting paid $16 million to play basketball.