July 19, 2016, 5:38 pm
Even the most optimistic fan would’ve called the Dwight Howard signing questionable at best. It put the Hawks behind in the race for Al Horford before they had any real reason to do so, and it gave them a player that looks to have his best days far behind him. I’m sure it’ll be nice to cheer on a hometown guy, and the name on the jersey obviously carries quite a bit of weight, even if Howard is clearly not the player that he once was. Even so, replacing Horford with Howard doesn’t give the Hawks an boost on either end of the floor.
Horford is the superior player in any offensive category that you could imagine. He nearly doubled Howard’s assist percentage, and had a lower turnover rate, which would prove extremely valuable to Atlanta next season. With Dennis Schroder going into his first season as the presumed full time starter, he may look toward other veterans in the starting lineup to help him run the offense at times, and Horford would be much more equipped than Howard to provide that relief.
Horford is clearly the more versatile and reliable scorer as well. Howard’s struggles shooting free throws have been well-documented, and he can’t be counted on to provide any offense that isn’t right next to the rim. According to Basketball Reference, nearly 66% of his shot attempts were within three feet of the basket last season, and around 32% of his attempts were from 3-10 feet (something tells me that we can probably assume that most of these were closer to 3 feet than 10 feet), and he couldn’t even manage to shoot 38% on these attempts.
For comparison, Horford took 30% of his shots within three feet, and only took 13.6% of his shots from 3-10 feet. He also showed that he’s a more-than-capable 3-point shooter, knocking down 34.4% of his shots on over three attempts per game, which is an increasingly valuable skill in the modern NBA. Getting shots at the rim is always a good idea, but Howard essentially invites the opposing center to station himself next to the rim to block shots and grab rebounds.
Defense gets a little closer to being balanced, but still clearly favors Horford. Howard excels as a rebounder and had a rebounding percentage last season that was nearly 8% higher than Horford. Dwight also had a slightly higher block rate, but the advantage swings into Horford’s favor after that point. He committed far less fouls, and beat Howard in both Defensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Win Shares, two stats that attempt to use advanced metrics to explain a players contribution to their team’s defensive success (or failure).
But let’s assume for a moment that Howard was the defensive presence that he once was. According to Basketball Reference, Atlanta had the second best Defensive Rating in the league last season, while ranking 22nd in Offensive Rating. The idea of tampering with an already lower-end offense by taking away one of its most valuable pieces looks completely ridiculous, even if Howard provides an elite defensive presence. Horford was far from a defensive liability and was actually a large part of why the team posted the defensive rating that it did.
I think it’s safe to assume that Atlanta was incredibly aware of all of this when they made the decision to sign Howard, which of course makes the move even more puzzling. They clearly aren’t disillusioned enough to see Howard as the star that he was in Orlando, so there must have been some other reasoning behind this. It’s important to note here that rumors were spread before the trade deadline alluding to the fact that the Hawks were not entirely sure what direction to take. This move is one of the most obvious signs of their uncertainty yet.
Dwight Howard represented an opportunity to try both. Consider the scenario where the team signs both Horford and Howard, which obviously leaves Paul Millsap out of the picture. The team would then trade an incredibly valuable asset, Millsap, for more perimeter oriented players, which the team strongly lacked outside of Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, who are both still young players, and Jeff Teague, who was traded before the draft.
The strength of the team last season was their frontcourt, and trading Paul Millsap for some high-upside perimeter players would help balance out the roster. The addition of Howard, while making Horford the starting power forward, would potentially keep that aspect of the team as a strength.
It is also worth pointing out that, while I don’t personally believe this, many have pointed to Howard’s diminishing role on offense as a potential reason for his decline. His usage plummeted to 18.4% last season, which was the only time that it had dipped below 20% other than his rookie season. He was also used in a dramatically different way last season, as 71% of his two-pointers were assisted last season, compared to his career average of 56.9%.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that with a limited role on offense, he may not be that motivated to play on either end of the floor. If the Hawks believe that this was a primary factor in his decline since leaving Orlando, then it would make sense that the Hawks would roll the dice on him, while keeping in mind that they’ll need to keep him involved.
It would be ridiculous for anyone to expect the old Dwight to show up next season, or ever again, but if they felt that they could get something between the old Dwight and the current Dwight, then the contract wouldn’t be terrible, especially at only 3 years.
Now for the second, and current, scenario. Atlanta, like any other team in the NBA not run by Sam Hinkie, would look to make any rebuild as short and painless as possible. With young assets like Schroder and Bazemore that are already prepared to fill a role, and two older prospects in DeAndre Bembry and Taurean Prince, Atlanta could be primed to have a relatively quick rebuild, if that was the route that they were to choose.
Trading Jeff Teague for a draft pick instead of a proven NBA player is not a move typically made by teams looking to ramp up for a deep playoff run, and take the next step toward contending. While it may have been wise, and the team could have conceivably been enamored with a player that they felt sure about getting with that pick, it isn’t a sign that they were trying to beef up, which they could have realistically tried to do with Schroder or Teague.
So what’s the value of adding Howard over Horford? An easy answer is that he sells tickets. Horford’s dad has noted that fans may not have been too excited about the team despite their recent success:
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) July 3, 2016
Howard’s name will sell tickets and jerseys, and will at the very least give the fans a reason to stay interested while the retooling is going on behind the scenes. If the organization feels that it can make it a relatively painless process (assets like Schroder and Bazemore could be decent starting points), then the allure of a name like Dwight Howard can be enough to hold the attention of fans. Couple that with the fact that Howard is from the Atlanta area and the narratives almost write themselves.
Howard is also only signed to a three year deal, which helps the team cut ties with him right around the time that they’ll be ready to hand the reins over to their (theoretical) new core. Horford was likely to require a five year deal to stay in Atlanta, which could have left them in a more difficult position when they were looking to compete again.
The Howard signing was one of the more confusing moves in free agency this year. He is a clear downgrade at the position, and is also a year older than the player that he replaced. Expecting Howard to be more valuable that Horford next season would be absolutely silly, and I still feel like the Hawks will regret this sooner rather than later, but this is at least one possible explanation for why Atlanta would take the path that they did.