Have you ever known a thing — or a person — to be present in your life for nine years, only for them to walk out/exist no more after one June night? Well, that’s the reality of what happened to Hawks fans with Al Horford this summer — the All-Star center who left the only professional team he has ever known to join the Boston Celtics.
Horford was a constant in Atlanta ever since the day he was selected by the Hawks with the third overall pick in 2007, and the thought of him not being a part of the pre game player announcements (and part of the Hawks as a whole, of course) is certainly an odd thing to think about now, let alone actually seeing (or not seeing him in this case) the reality of situation on opening night.
Normally the thought of Al Horford leaving Atlanta would have been near catastrophic as the Hawks aren’t normally known for attracting the top free agents, thus filling the void Horford left (who certainly ranks among the better centers in the league) would’ve proved very difficult. But the Hawks did not leave anything to chance in an unpredictable free agency and decided to bring a center on board, even before Horford announced his intentions to sign with the Celtics.
But the Hawks didn’t just acquire any center, they acquired a high profile center — at least in terms of his name — in Dwight Howard. While the Hawks aren’t getting the best version of Dwight Howard, he was a very big fish for the Hawks to catch — the Hawks don’t normally sign players with a name as big as Dwight Howard’s. But what his signature provided the Hawks with was a very decent safety net in the event Horford did choose to leave, which he ultimately did. With Dwight’s signature agreed upon, losing Horford was not as catastrophic as it could’ve been.
But maybe you feel the same way I (and many others, writers and fans alike) feel — not exactly huge fans about the Hawks essentially choosing Dwight Howard over Horford. Maybe you’re concerned about the basketball fit — Horford always boasted a strong mid-range game before expanding to the three-point line last year, whereas Dwight’s offensive game is quite limited. Horford is also a better passer/facilitator than Dwight, and the system the Hawks run place priority on both of those traits.
Maybe you’re worried about Dwight’s injury history — he has been in the league since 2004 and has had back issues in recent years, and back issues are never a good sign in bigs who have been around as long as Dwight has.
You know what, maybe you’re just worried about everything about the signing, period.
Well today I’m here to help you out. Since I was not a huge fan of the Hawks choosing the post prime Dwight over (somewhat) prime Al Horford, I’ve had to try talk myself (since I have no other choice now) into the positives Dwight Howard brings to the table. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and there are certainly positives out there and I wanted to share them with you, in case you’re — like me — also finding it hard to be optimistic about Dwight in Atlanta.
So, allow me to sweet-talk you (as well as myself) into the thought of Dwight Howard as an Atlanta Hawk. We’re going to be optimistic today and not talk about the negatives (there’ll be time for those closer to the season) that Dwight may bring to the team, but instead the things that may allow this homecoming story to be a successful one.
Maybe you will agree, maybe you won’t — it’s just to help people maybe see things from a perspective they may not have at this point in time. So, it’s all good, OK? Let’s get cracking.
Potential rejuvenation being/playing at home
The hometown kid is finally here, and he’s here to play for the hometown team. I believe Dwight is going to feel a real sense of relief playing in and for his hometown, and I think he’s going to feel comfortable being in Atlanta. This is all obvious, but it’s important to note — he’s very familiar with his surroundings and his family lives in Atlanta, and I think these are things that are important to Dwight. It’ll help him feel as comfortable as he needs to be. And when you’re comfortable — in any environment — there’s an opportunity to excel.
I think Dwight be able to go out on the court and play with a looseness that he probably hasn’t in years. There’s certainly not as much pressure on Dwight these days as there to used to be — those post 2009 Magic teams, the 2013 (Nash, Kobe, Pau, Dwight) Lakers, and the pressure of being James Harden’s running mate in Houston. Arguably this is the least amount of pressure Dwight has faced — at least heading into this season — in a long time. Obviously there’s a bit of pressure to perform well (as there is for all players), but he’s not arriving as the saviour of Atlanta and he’s not arriving as the definitive piece that will have people pegging the Hawks to go all the way… None of that.
I think the fans will really support Dwight and give him the love and support he would dearly appreciate after a few challenging seasons where things on the court haven’t worked out as he would’ve liked and the fans haven’t gravitated to him as they used to.
In short, being home (and the fruits and vegetables that come with being home) is really going to benefit Dwight and help him feel comfortable, and this should translate to positivity on the court.
I’d say it’s fairly safe to say that Coach Mike Budenholzer will be the best head coach that Dwight will have worked with since Stan van Gundy in Orlando. Maybe you’re of the opinion that Coach Bud is a better coach than SVG, in which case Bud is the best coach Dwight will have worked with (sorry Mike D’Antoni!).
Dwight has stated that he has been a fan of Budenholzer’s coaching style for the past three years and is really looking forward to working the former Coach of the Year:
“I really love the coach… I told him three years ago I really like his style and the way he approaches the game. Just to be able to get coached by somebody like that who’s all about trying to allow you to grow as a player, I’m excited. I’ve seen what Al has done in the past.” — Dwight Howard
Since his signing was announced, Dwight has often spoken about how he really respects Bud and how he wants to play for him. Since he (supposedly) possesses this admiration for Bud, hopefully Dwight will be open to being coached — even at this stage of his career — and listen to what Bud has to say to help him help the team. That he will buy into the system.
Bud himself is also looking forward to coaching Dwight and is looking forward to working with a center who rolls hard to the rim, something Bud is “more comfortable” with:
“It’s great to have somebody who is going to roll and put pressure on the rim and have shooting around him. I think it’s going to work well. In a lot of ways, we’ve adjusted to who we’ve had the first three years and in some ways, it will be going back to what I know maybe even better and maybe even more comfortable with having someone who can put that kind of pressure on the rim.” — Coach Mike Budenholzer
Bud would’ve worked with both David Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, who were both excellent roll-men, so it’s fair to say he knows what he’s talking about.
We’ll have to wait and see how Coach Bud is going to implement Dwight into his offense and how that will work out, but he’s certainly excited at the prospect of Dwight being in Atlanta. And that’s encouraging to hear.
I’m going to take the “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach when it comes to Dwight’s health for now, but there’s no reason to believe that Dwight’s body has completely broken down. Let me put it this way, I’m much more optimistic about Dwight Howard’s health than I am about Tiago Splitter’s health.
While Dwight acknowledges he had a back issue in the past, he insists that he is now healthy. From an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan back in May (which I will be referencing often because it’s a fantastic interview):
ESPN: Your former coach Kevin McHale said recently that you are not the same player because your back issues and tight hips have prevented you from getting low and being effective on the block. (Howard shot a career-low 47 percent out of the post in 2015-16).
Howard: “Well, I don’t really agree with that. I don’t have back issues. I had a back issue, but I had surgery and I’m fine. I haven’t had any trouble with it since. I’m good. I’m healthy.”
If Dwight says he’s healthy, who are we to say he’s not healthy until proven otherwise? If he’s not healthy on opening night, look, we’ll clearly know when he steps out onto the court, but give Dwight the benefit of the doubt about his health until proven otherwise. He played 71 games last season and then five games in the post season, compared to the 36 games Splitter played last season. There’s legitimate reason to be optimistic about Dwight’s health this season.
A system he can buy/invest into
The Rockets took an interesting approach when deciding upon a philosophy for their team. They basically decided that everyone who is capable of shooting three-pointers is going to shooting three-pointers, percentages be damned! That means Josh Smith is brick… I mean shooting threes, that Corey Brewer is shooting threes, and that means Trevor Ariza is shooting threes (and so on) for better or for worse.
Obviously Dwight has never been a perimeter shooter (besides in end of game situations) and it’s one of the reasons he found his role on the offensive end limited in Houston.
As his career in Houston progressed, Dwight found his role as an option on the offensive end decline. In his first season in Houston (2013-14) Dwight averaged 11.3 field goal attempts. The next season, he averaged 10.3 field goal attempts per game. And last season that downward trend continued, Dwight averaged just 8.5 shots per game — only in his rookie season did he attempt less shots per game (8.3 FGA in 2004-05).
Dwight wasn’t happy with this trend and went to see Rockets GM Daryl Morey to talk about it. Morey’s answer wasn’t one Dwight appreciated. From the same ESPN interview:
Howard: “I felt like my role was being reduced. I went to [Rockets general manager] Daryl [Morey] and said, ‘I want to be more involved.’ Daryl said, ‘No, we don’t want you to be.’ My response was, ‘Why not? Why am I here?’ It was shocking to me that it came from him instead of our coach. So I said to him, ‘No disrespect to what you do, but you’ve never played the game. I’ve been in this game a long time. I know what it takes to be effective.”’
“No, we don’t want you to be (involved more in the offense)“. Ouch. This is a player who has averaged over 20 points per game in four separate seasons, led a team that went to the NBA Finals in scoring and you don’t want him to have even somewhat of a significant impact on the offensive end? I know Dwight isn’t an offensive juggernaut, but he’s no Omer Asik either…
On the offensive end, Dwight’s role was basically reduced to setting screens, catching the occasional lob, while commanding a few post touches (well, the most in the league last season but shhh…). This is a player who has averaged over 20 points per game in four different seasons, now he’s just expected to set screens, watch his teammates brick threes, hustle back on defense, block shots, and set another screen for another three-pointer that’s probably not going in — or just watch James Harden play hero ball.
Here’s an example.
It’s not surprising Dwight didn’t buy into this system, a system where his talents weren’t being utilized as they could’ve been. He looked disinterested often last season and I don’t blame him feeling this way.
“As a big, someone who has been the focal point of the team, who is still young, who still has some great years in front of me, you run the floor, you sprint as hard as you can, you duck in, and still, you don’t get the ball. It brings you down. It sucks the energy out of you…” — Dwight Howard
Former Pistons Bad Boy and Hall of Famer, Joe Dumars, (in the Bad Boys documentary) said “Every team needs an identity. You can’t be great in this league and have zero identity”.
Have you ever watched a team play and thought “This team has no clue what it is”? That thought crept into my head whenever I watched the Sacramento Kings and the Knicks last season — what were those two teams’ identity? There wasn’t one, and those teams went no where because of it. The Rockets, however, possessed an identity, but as it turned out it was a crappy identity — just jack threes and hope they go in, and isolation plays from James Harden. That sort of identity can never truly succeed in the NBA, and this is one of the reasons Dwight Howard no longer resides in Houston.
In Atlanta, there are no clear cut favourites when it comes to offense. It’s not about getting out of the way and letting Paul Millsap go to work 1-on-1 (as it is for James Harden in Houston), or jacking up threes at every opportunity but it’s about sharing the ball, making sure everyone gets involved and finding the best possible shot.
As a big man, Dwight doesn’t handle the ball going up floor, and because of this — in combination with the way Houston plays basketball (iso-Harden and threes) — Dwight wouldn’t get to touch the ball an awful lot outside the paint compared to his teammates who could dribble and shoot threes. In Atlanta, everyone touches the ball often in all sorts of different spots, so Dwight should feel so much more involved than he did in Houston and if he buys into the system that Budenholzer and company run he will reap the rewards.
It’s a system he can buy into — it’s an offense that is going to create more scoring opportunities for Dwight to score and if he’s getting those easy dunks and feels like he’s actually a part of the offense you should see an invested Dwight on both ends of the floor. And that’s a Dwight you want on your side.
Professional pride and a quest to win back the fans’ and players’ respect = motivation
Last season was a bad season for Dwight. It was a year that saw him register the second fewest field goal attempts and the second fewest points per game output of his career — the lowest since his rookie season. The divide between Dwight and James Harden was apparent for all to see, he came under a lot of criticism for his disinterest and he has just become a very unpopular player around the league — ever since his Orlando days drew to a close.
One thing that always stood out to me when Dwight was a Rocket was how many of his professional colleagues have had something bad to say about him. Kevin Durant called him a “pussy”, Kobe Bryant called him “soft” (among other things), Kevin Garnett appeared to call Dwight a “soft ass n***a (if you read his lips) prior to Garnett head butting Dwight, and LaMarcus Aldridge may have also called Dwight a “pussy”.
There’s something to be said when your professional peers (and very high profile players too) have very mean things to say about you. After that incident with Kevin Durant in 2014, Gary Payton chimed in on the matter:
“I think he’s disliked by a lot of players now. They’re starting to dislike him a lot. Because what Dwight does is, you know, you see all the smiles and all the antics. That is getting on people’s nerves. That’s getting on players’ nerves. And then when he does things, he’s always at people, at people. To get this guy right here, Kevin Durant, to do what he did, you know it’s starting to become a problem with basketball players. ‘Cause Kevin Durant doesn’t really, really talk to anybody.” — Gary Payton
He’s right though, Kevin Durant isn’t one to get into petty squabbles every game, and he’s hasn’t been the only high profile player who has had something to say to Dwight. Payton would go on to say that he agreed with Durant’s view of Howard.
When filling in for Shaq on TNT during the playoffs this year, Dwight was asked by Charles Barkley why he wasn’t liked. Here was Dwight’s response:
“I think I was very likable in Orlando, and the way that situation ended, I think people felt as though I’m just this bad guy, I’m all about myself, I’m a diva, I’m stuck on being Dwight Howard, this famous basketball player. So people say, ‘I don’t like that guy.’ And I hear that, and it really hurts me because my heart and my attitude toward the game has always been the same.” — Dwight Howard
Here’s where I’m going with this: I think it’s fair to say Dwight is a sensitive guy (which there is nothing wrong with) and he doesn’t like being hated. He wants to be loved/respected again — like he was in Orlando days. What did he do in Orlando that drew fans to him? He played hard, played well, and helped carry the Magic to the playoffs and even to the NBA Finals. In other words, he was in winning situations in a place and system where he thrived. If he can find success in his hometown, you should see Dwight’s popularity begin to rise again. I really believe this is important to him, even if he never admits it. He wants that respect back, but he’s going to have to play hard to earn it again.
With regards matters on the court, Dwight will want to bounce back and show everyone he’s still got it — that it was the system implemented in Houston that meant he couldn’t ultimately succeed, and that last year was just an off-year in a bad situation.
“I know it’s not going to be easy [to win the title], but I’ve been working extremely hard this summer. I’m very motivated, really pissed off about last season and I’m looking forward to coming back with a new mentality.” — Dwight Howard
There’s serious motivation for Dwight this year and his desire to bounce back is clearly evident.
Willingness to evolve
As the NBA game has shifted into this ‘pace and space’ era, you’ve seen more and more NBA bigs expand their offensive game — particularly their jump/three-point shot.
As other centers around him have refined their shooting touch, Dwight hasn’t moved with the times, which is a dangerous thing to do/not do for someone who relies so much on his athleticism. That athleticism isn’t going to be there forever and when that goes, then what? Do you have another facet of your game that can extend your career, like the three-point shot has extended Vince Carter’s career after his athleticism declined?
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas cited Dwight’s failure to expand his game as the reason why he isn’t regarded as one of the most dominant big men to play the game, as perhaps he should’ve been:
“Twelve years into his career in terms of where he started, we should be talking about him in terms of one of the most dominant big men to ever play. Now, why isn’t he? He hasn’t developed his game. Right now the name is bigger than the game.” — Isiah Thomas
But this summer, more than any before, Dwight has spent time in the gym practising mid-range shots with a man who I will petition for a max contract if any of the things Dwight is working on translates into NBA games: shooting coach, Lethal Shooter.
This one of many videos of Dwight practising — and hitting — mid-range shots.
— Dwight Howard (@DwightHoward) August 8, 2016
Dwight has also been working out with his new teammate — and sharpshooter — Kyle Korver in pick and pop situations.
Building everyday.. Dwight Howard & Kyle Korver building chemistry together.. T•E•A•M + Hard Work = Hawks Family??? pic.twitter.com/gFn0t67qBh
— Lethal Shooter (@LethalShooter__) August 15, 2016
This is actually exciting to watch and think about. If Dwight can hit this shot with any kind of consistency it’s going to make that Korver-Howard pick and roll/pop combination deadly. Again, if Dwight can hit that shot with consistency, this combination is going to be very interesting to watch.
But can we actually expect Dwight to take these shots in a game? The signs point to yes.
In the past, Dwight has been “scared” to take jump shots as he is afraid of missing:
ESPN: One of the other criticisms of your game is you never expanded your range beyond the key. Why not?
Howard: “I used to shoot 1,000 shots a day. I called Kobe when I was still playing in Orlando and asked him what I should do. He’s the one who told me to do take 1,000 a day. So I’d practice and practice them but then I’d be so afraid to take them in a game because I was so worried I would miss. I hate messing up. I hate failure. I was just talking to [WNBA star] Tina Thompson the other day about it. I told her about my fear of missing and she said, ‘Dwight, you’re gonna miss. Everyone does.’ But I want to be perfect.”
ESPN: So you don’t take perimeter jumpers because you are afraid you will miss them?
Howard: “I don’t like messing up. I didn’t want to turn on the TV and see people say, ‘Dwight is taking all those outside shots, he’s screwing around, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to win.’ So that’s the war I’ll be having in my head. I’m working on it. I have a sports psychologist I used in Houston and I have one in Minnesota. If my spiritual and mental game is right, the physical part will follow.”
This may be a stretch, but it’s possible that Dwight has been concealing a well developed part of his game (after all, Dwight stated that he has been practising that shot since his Orlando days, so that dates back to at least 2012) that we haven’t seen him showcase an awful lot because of the personal conflict it created in his head. Now that many people have seen footage of Dwight working on and showcasing a jump shot, that reaction he feared (of “screwing around”) shouldn’t be as much of an issue as it was in the past, now that everyone is expecting it.
There is no better time for Dwight to show his evolution as a player, and I think he’s now in the right place — on and off the court — to finally unveil this aspect of his game in actual games.
So, there you have it. Was I successful in sweet-talking you into Dwight Howard? Are you (at the very least) now a little more excited about Dwight Howard in Atlanta?
While he is a very different kind of center than Al Horford is and while we’re just going to have to wait until the season begins to see how on earth this will work, there’s reason to be optimistic about Dwight Howard as an Atlanta Hawk.