Analytics

Can Dwight Howard push the Hawks to the next level?

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Swapping out Al Horford for Dwight Howard was met around the NBA with a relatively non-chalant attitude considering the tendency to overreact to every move teams make, no matter how small or big.

The consensus was Horford is at this point the better and more versatile player. Howard wasn’t too far removed from very good playoff performances but he wasn’t the sure-fire guarantee for a high-level defense either.

Even in the midst of everyone laughing at Howard’s free throw shooting, the back injuries that slowed him down and all the chemistry issues between Howard and James Harden, the Rockets always had a much better defense with Howard until last season, and during the 2014-15 season Houston allowed just 97.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the court – a mark that would have led the league over the full season.

Forward to 2015-16, and the Rockets were only about one point per 100 possessions better with Howard on the court defensively, with a 105.1 defensive rating.

The biggest reason for worry the Hawks had was that Howard wouldn’t be a good defensive player anymore, and had moved into a phase in his career where switching onto guards and making weakside rotations consistently would be too tough a task. Offensively, Howard was completely disengaged and averaged only 9.1 field goal attempts per 36 minutes last season (the lowest mark since Howard’s rookie season), and him continuing to demand the ball in the post or risk becoming useless on that end is a challenge the Hawks knew they would face. If Howard’s athleticism declined quickly, the gravity he could command on the roll could decrease significantly and hurt Atlanta’s offense.


Howard alley-oop from Schroeder.

NBA fans generally underestimate the value of a great roll man who forces the defense to help in the middle. Without touching the ball, DeAndre Jordan is a very good offensive player precisely because defenses are forced to change the way they defend on- and off-ball screens, which is incredibly difficult because small mental lapses lead to open corner shooters or lobs when the ball is thrown somewhere close to the rim.


DeAndre Jordan down screen for JJ Redick. Jokic playing passing lane leads to Jordan dunk.

Howard isn’t as explosive as Jordan anymore, and combined with Dennis Schroeder taking over duties as the starting point guard (and Kyle Korver being another year older), the offense coming into the season was a real question mark. Mix in Paul Millsap being on the wrong side of 30 and coming off the best defensive season (by a wide margin) of his career… Well, the chance the Atlanta’s second-best defense from last year would regress at least somewhat was real.

The Hawks won 48 games last season after winning 60 the season before. In the NBA, when things start going badly they often escalate quickly, and moving on from Horford – perhaps the most reliable player in the NBA – to Howard with all his question marks both on and off the floor was a move with significant risk.

It’s worth noting the Hawks seem to be a well-run team who know what they are doing, and it’s safe to assume the organization wasn’t oblivious to the potential risks. But with attendance issues even in good years, the team needed to keep to good run going.

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Superficially at least, the results look pretty great right now.Howard is playing just a tad under 30 minutes a game, a good number for him at this point in his career, and per 36 minutes he’s averaging 19.1 points, 15.6 rebounds (with over six offensive rebounds), 2.4 blocks, 9.8 free throw attempts on a career-high 63.0 field goal percentage.

Howard is playing just a tad under 30 minutes a game, a good number for him at this point in his career, and per 36 minutes he’s averaging 19.1 points, 15.6 rebounds (with over six offensive rebounds), 2.4 blocks, 9.8 free throw attempts on a career-high 63.0 field goal percentage.

Those numbers are absolutely fantastic, and after a two-year hiatus from the All-Star team, Howard is a lock to be back if he continues close to the current production. Horford is one of those players who is probably underrated by the average NBA fan, but also probably overrated by the most intense NBA nerds who appreciate the nuances of high-post passing and positional defense. The main skill Howard is far better than Horford at is rebounding, and that’s something the Hawks desperately needed.

Last season, Atlanta rebounded just 74.6 percent of opponents misses, ranking them 26th in defensive rebounding percentage. On the offensive glass, the Hawks rebounded just 19.1 percent of their misses, which is something like the worst number ever in NBA history. For this year, the Hawks have jumped from the worst ever to second-best in the league in offensive rebounding, grabbing 28.8 percent of their missed shots. The Hawks’ defensive rebounding percentage of 78.0 currently ranks eighth in the NBA.

Rebounding is important, and going from something like the worst rebounding team on both ends to one of the best is super useful. Howard is averaging a career-best in offensive and total rebounds, and if he can stay healthy and effective on the glass, the Hawks will have fixed their biggest weakness from previous years.

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Currently, Atlanta ranks second in defensive efficiency allowing just 95.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that is better than the best defense has been in recent years. Partially this is due to the fact they have played some bad offensive teams, but the Hawks do have better rim protection with Howard than Horford, and teams are shooting only 48.8 percent at the basket against them this year, the fifth-best mark in the league.

The Hawks are smart, well coached and have players who know what to do at every position, and that’ll make the defense pretty good all year. The question becomes what the defense will look like against the top offenses, and in particular the Cavaliers.

Atlanta won its first game against the Cavaliers, but the ending of that game wasn’t particularly promising for them. The Cavaliers put Channing Frye on the court and managed to basically play Howard out of the game very quickly. The Cavaliers know putting shooting on the court will be a problem for the Hawks, and Howard has to be better defending shooters than he’s been before if Atlanta is to have any shot at pushing Cleveland in the playoffs (if the teams face each other).


Howard mails in defending Frye and gets back screened out of the play.

Offensively, the Hawks are pretty good right now, averaging 107.0 points per 100 possessions, ranking the team 10th in offensive efficiency. The biggest difference for Howard isn’t that he’s taking a ton more shots, and in fact if you take away his offensive rebounds and just look at the typical field goal attempts in the post or on the roll, Howard is probably shooting as little as ever from the field.

The real difference-maker is that there’s just useful stuff to do in the Hawks offense, and Howard has the chance to keep himself engaged in the offense just by screening off the ball and running through the motions in the Hawks’ offense. Mike Budenholzer’s offense isn’t what the Rockets had been doing the past few years, and Dwight isn’t in an offense where there’s nothing to do except watch Harden go one-on-one.

Howard is in positions to succeed, and the offense is generally running just fine, but you’d still hope Howard was doing a better job executing. The Hawks are basically punting 5-6 possessions per game for no reason waiting for Howard to post-up. Those possessions are almost without exception terrible unless Howard is right at the rim, and with the sixth most post-up attempts this season at 43, he is producing just 0.84 points per possession, ranking him in the 40th percentile in the NBA. That’s actually pretty good for Howard, and he hasn’t been turning the ball over at an enormous rate like before, but if that starts again his post-ups may become untenable.

For someone averaging over five offensive rebounds a game, Howard still looks like his effort is subpar. Take a moment to look at how he runs to spots on the court he’s supposed to be on, or how he screens off-the-ball and you’ll be left feeling dissatisfied with his intensity.


Howard misses three screens but finishes the play with an offensive rebound.

Possessions like these are in a nutshell Howard’s season, and to some extent career. Howard isn’t athletically such an anomaly compared to the rest of the league, and the Hawks could have found advantages earlier in that possession if Howard had executed better. It’s hard to complain about a player putting up numbers like Howard in a clear bounce-back year, but below-average execution for no reason is mildly infuriating.

In fact, it’s worth noting that the reason why the Hawks have started off hot isn’t actually the starting lineup, and the three worst plus/minus numbers among the guys who play minutes in the Hawks rotation are currently Kent Bazemore, Schroeder and Howard.

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Thabo Sefolosha and Malcolm Delaney are both extremely high up on the short list of players having underrated great starts to the season, and in about 200 minutes each with either on the court, Atlanta has outscored opponents by over 20 points per 100 possessions. In fact, Sefolosha ranks as the best player in plus/minus in the NBA behind anyone not in the Clippers starting lineup or named LeBron James or Stephen Curry. And Delaney isn’t far behind.

In some ways, the Hawks look better suited to finally break through in the playoffs, since the team finally rebounds well and has a real center. On the other hand, the season is long and we can’t be sure this is the Howard w e’ll see all year, and what the team looks like if the bench doesn’t play as well as it has so far.

Howard is back to being a player who can make a real difference for a playoff team, and that’s a great and welcome sign. But there’s more to success here than big box score numbers, and the Hawks are going to need him to push himself to another level if they want to really compete in the spring.

You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.

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