If Dwight Howard retired in 2012, we might now remember him as one of the better big men to ever play the game of basketball. After all, he was coming off a 5 season stretch in which he averaged 20 points, 14 rebounds and made 59% of his field goals. He was more than elite on both sides of the basketball. He was the leading man for a Magic team that probably should have won one of Kobe's 2009 and 2010 titles. Not to mention, in his 2010-11 campaign, where he averaged 22 points an 14 rebounds, many believe he should have been the MVP. Not too long ago, there was no better big man than Dwight Howard.
Just four short years later, at only 30 years old, Dwight Howard is one of the most criticized and hated basketball players on the planet. Since forcing his way out of Orlando and leaving as a giant villain, he has had eventful, but unsuccessful stopovers in both Los Angeles and Houston, before arriving back in his hometown of Atlanta where he hopes to revive his career.
In L.A., he was brought in to form the most un-super of super teams, teaming up with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. But Dwight's health was at an all-time low with the Lakers. His back gave way and he clearly wasn't at 100% for basically the entire season. Issues between Howard and Bryant surfaced on multiple occasions, drawing frightfully similar comparisons to the Kobe-Shaq feud in the early 2000s. Whether it was his health, the relationship with Kobe or even coach Mike D'Antoni's system, the Lakers and Dwight weren't a perfect match by any means.
In the summer of 2013, Howard changed teams for the second time in the space of a year, joining the Houston Rockets who were building a contener thru their highway robbery of James Harden in 2012 and Daryl Morey's use of analytics. It was a very smart decision on Dwight's part. The Lakers weren't the right place for him quite clearly, while the Rockets offered a chance to get out of the limelight of L.A., join an upstart team with a fellow star in Harden, as well as joining a potential NBA title contender.
In seasons one and two with the Rockets, things were swell. The Rockets were a success under Morey-ball, there were no chemistry or locker room issues and in their second postseason trip, the Rockets made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. It's incredibly easy to forget, but the Rockets were only three games away from an NBA Finals appearance. Dwight was a beast during those playoffs, he looked like old Dwight again, averaging 16 points and 14 rebounds per contest. Finally, things were looking up for Dwight, after years of turbulence, Howard found solace.
But then the 2015-16 season rolled around.
With the flick of a switch, the Rockets became incompetent. Their locker room disintegrated with their lack of veteran leadership, James Harden came into the season overweight, Kevin McHale was fired barely 10 games into the season and even worse, Howard was on the outs with the team. Somewhere along the line, Howard and Harden's relationship fell apart and according to reports, they both attempted to get each other traded. Later on in the season, Dwight voiced his displeasure with the amount of ball he was getting. He was sick of being an afterthought within the offense, but all this did was create more instability within the Rockets organization.
At the trade deadline the Rockets couldn't even give Howard away. They desperately tried to unload him, but there were no takers. For a guy that had previously made 8 straight all-star games, this was clearly a low point in Howard's illustrious career. The Rockets squeaked into the playoffs, but were immediately disposed of by the Curry-less Warriors.
A couple of months down the track, and Dwight is now back where it all began for him. He's back home in Atlanta after leaving the Rockets. He signed a 3 year, $70 million deal to replace Al Horford as the team's starting center and now, his time for redemption is here. Many have written Howard off as a basketball player. His stay over the past 4 or so years in the NBA have been far short stable. He constantly finds himself in the thick of drama and hasn't played up to his potential since his days in Orlando.
But I believe that Dwight Howard is ready to bounce back. Call me crazy, but I think all the pieces are in place for Howard to return to some form of dominance within the NBA landscape once again. At age 30, it's going to be hard to replicate what he did when he was in his mid 20s, but on the Hawks he has an ideal situation for him.
On the Rockets, Howard was exposed to an environment that was the opposite of what his personality needed. The Rockets provided him with a wide variety of vocal personalities, all of whom clashed with Howard's bubbly nature. There were no leaders on that Rockets team, no veterans to sort things out off the court and in J.B. Bickerstaff and Kevin McHale, you had two coaches who might be decent basketball minds, but don't have what it takes to sort out a situation like the Houston Rockets.
In Atlanta, the Hawks have an extremely good culture headed by the brilliant Mike Budenholzer. Their team has a bunch of battle tested veterans like Paul Millsap, Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver, who provide low key leadership and don't have massive egos that will clash with Howard. When was the last time you heard of a falling out on the Hawks? When was the last time you heard of the Hawks' best two players demanding that the other be traded? The reason why both those answers were no is because the Hawks have an excellent, inviting culture that will be perfect for Howard's troublesome personality to fit into. It's exactly the type of rehab a guy like Howard needs.
It's not just the locker room and culture that will provide Dwight with a better situation to succeed either. The Hawks' basketball system is far better when compared to the Rockets for fitting Dwight Howard in.
The Rockets played to analytics driven basketball. Their three-point shooting and layup heavy offense was spearheaded by James Harden, who took over the offense night in and night out with his funky drive-and-kicks that is perfect for Daryl Morey's version of basketball. But in that offense, everyone has to adjust to Harden. He is the only ball-handler on the squad and the offense requires him to create everyone elses looks as well as his own. This causes a hell of a lot of iso-ball for Harden, without all too much movement. It's exactly why James Harden posted the third highest usage percentage in the entire league, while Howard posted the lowest since his rookie year.
This, in a nutshell, is why Howard constantly complains about not getting the ball enough. It's not Harden's fault at all, it's Morey-ball to the max, a system that doesn't require a center to make plays. Dwight, as mentioned, constantly displayed his frustration with not getting the ball. So in what seemed like an effort to appease him, the Rockets, without any thought at all, began just dumping the ball down to him in the post. This was without any real thought or purpose, other than to get Howard his touches. I mean on a lot of these wasted possessions, the Rockets would get the ball down to Dwight without any motion or movement and let Howard chuck up some filth after using his terrible footwork around the rim.
Howard has long thought of himself as a post up player, but this is not his game. Last season, Dwight posted up 30% of the time according to NBA.com data, but only registered 0.82 points per possession on those plays. That is horrific efficiency. The Rockets should've played to his strengths to satisfy his ball wanting, like getting him involved in pick and roll, where he can utilize his bedazzling athleticism and terrifying assaults on the basket. What's baffling is that according to the same NBA.com data, Howard was only involved in pick and roll, 9% of the time, which is ludicrous. Meanwhile, other star bigs with similar skill-sets to Howard (a la Hassan Whiteside, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis, Steven Adams) posted pick and roll frequencies of over 20%.
On the Hawks, Coach Budenholzer will provide a system far more accommodating to Howard's strengths. Last season, on offensive trips, the Hawks posted up just 5% of the time, the fifth lowest percentage in the entire NBA. So hopefully, there will be no more highly inefficient dumps down to Howard in the low post. But if the Hawks do want to use Howard in that way, at least we'll get the assurance that Coach Bud will at least use some Spurs-esque motion to free up these post ups. He'll spread the floor, open up kick outs and in general just make posting up for Howard a far prettier task. This will be quite a contrast for Howard, who has grown accustomed to the lack of motion and thoughtless posting up in H-Town.
But it is in the pick and roll where Howard will see the difference. Last season, according to NBA.com, as a team the Rockets ranked dead last in pick and roll frequency for the roll man. When you have a guy like Howard, this shouldn't be a thing. In contrast, the Hawks ranked fifth in frequency in the same statistic. For once, it seems Dwight will actually be able to use his biggest strengths on offense. With some great floor spreaders and a great young point guard in Dennis Schroder, the Hawks have the pieces to surround every Dwight pick and roll perfectly. How would any team defend a Schroder/Dwight pick and roll, without bringing help defense? Once you decide that you have to help, who do you help off? Bazemore, Korver or Millsap? That decision will be sure to keep a lot of coaches awake at night this season.
The dark days are over for Dwight. This is going to be a great new start for Howard and the rest of the NBA should be ready for Dwight Howard circa 2011 to be hitting their homecourt in the 2010-11 season.
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