How the Dwight Howard signing affects the Hawks
Atlanta has been the beacon of consistency in the NBA, making the playoffs for 9 straight years, but at the same time they have never made it all the way to the Finals since the 60-61 season, when they were still located in St. Louis. However, this offseason looked like a complete change from the norm, as they let Al Horford walk and in return signed Dwight Howard, and traded Jeff Teague away to the Pacers, leaving Dennis Schroeder to fill in for him. The moves seem to indicate that the Hawks aren't content with staying at the second level, and are taking riskier moves in order to jump the gap from a good team to a championship team.
Dwight Howard is one of these moves, and he is there to try to fill the superstar void that Atlanta never filled with Al Horford. Some of this has to do with personality, as Howard is much more outspoken than Horford, and is more well known due to the fact that he has had a much higher peak than Horford, along with the whole Dwightmare saga. This instantly adds marketing to a team that previously never had a prominent figure in the media, especially with the "no I in team" ideology. However, while marketability is strong, Howard is anything but a sure thing, coming off of multiple leg injuries with the Rockets, and while he will never go back to Superman, the season still depends on how well he will play after coming off of multiple years of back and knee injuries dating back to 2011.
At the same time, while Howard is undoubtedly well known, Atlanta signed him for what made him so famous, not just the fame itself. The Hawks finished in the bottom ten in both team rebounds and opposing rebounds, and Howard may just be the remedy for this problem, as he has never been out of the top ten in rebounds per game throughout his career, and has finished first in total rebounds per game 5 times out of his 11 seasons, becoming one of the most consistent double-double threats since his rookie year. This is a much different style than Al Horford, who has only cracked double digit rebounds once in his 9 year career. The advantage he gives on the boards will certainly be helpful for the rest of the team to get more possessions per game, which almost always leads to more points for a team and less for their opponent. The inside presence in the paint Howard gives is more than just a body on the boards, though, as while Dwight will never again be Superman, his post presence and pick and roll proficiency are, quite literally, a driving force for creating openings in the defense. This style of play compliments the other half of the Atlanta frontcourt, Paul Millsap, pretty well, as the gravitational pull Howard's presence gives off opens up driving lanes and more open shots for him to take.
Howard's presence isn't just limited to sitting under the basket pulling defenders and balls that come his way either, as in defense he is still one of the best at protecting the rim. His defense helped a mostly atrocious front line defense in Houston save many points with his rim protection and had a 104 defensive rating last year, and factoring in the fact that he shared most of his floor time with James Harden, it's a surprise he didn't fare much worse on that end of the floor, given that they were essentially playing down a man on defense with him on the floor. Moving to Atlanta, he will not have the same workload on that end of the floor since most of his teammates will be better at keeping them out of the paint, making it so Howard doesn't have to expend his energy on every play, as he did in Houston to cover up for the horrid perimeter defense he was forced to put up with last year. This means that he will no longer have to be the sole defensive presence on the floor, as he'll have plenty others to help him.
At the same time, the signing, like everything else, has its downsides. In his prime, Howard would be a huge upgrade, but as it is with all of his injuries and playing 31,092 total minutes, the wear and tear has certainly slowed him down enough to keep him from being dominant every night. While Howard sets good screens and has an decent inside game, he's going to be the second or third option most nights, but his ego demands a role that gets him as many touches as a number one. Managing his ego along with his touches and minutes will prove to be a very tough balance to maintain, even for Mike Budenholzer. While he is saying all the right things now, every single one of his previous stops indicate that there will be at least some dissent in the locker room, as he often clashes with other big personalities, and sometimes these clashes lead to either him or his opponent being removed from the team. In spite of this, Atlanta doesn't have these elements that get Howard off, as there are no other "big" personalities with him to butt heads with or preexisting tension in the locker room. This, combined with a staff that helps players and has had few players alienated, and in those rare cases it was almost always because there was a suitable replacement for the player. Nevertheless, he still brings unwanted locker room tension wherever he goes, which has proven to be team breaking for teams that were supposedly in contention.
To add to this, he offers little to no spacing on the offense due to his inability to score outside of ten feet, and while this offers extra spacing, it will also make it hard for the drivers on the team like Dennis Schroeder to probe a defense packing the paint. The inability to score from anywhere outside the paint also hurts him late game and when trailing, as his age combined with injuries make it harder for him to be effective in transition on both sides of the ball if he can't get the rebound. He also is notoriously bad at free throws, which may lead to intentional fouling strategies late game, again hurting his ability to finish games. which is already hampered by his age. This may lead to Budenholzer having to get creative late since his best center will be out, and while this may lead to good unconventional lineups, sometimes experimentation can go horribly wrong, such as the Pacers putting Paul George at power forward at the beginning of the year in order to downsize. Nonetheless, Howard is still a force on the inside, but the inside might not always be the best option for the Hawks.
The Dwight Howard signing was a calculated risk by the Hawks, but whether it pays off is another story. If it works, the Hawks may have a shot at giving the Cavs a real challenge in the East. On the other hand, if it breaks down, like all of his other stops, he may just set Atlanta all the way back to the lottery. Either way, the move is a much better one then staying in stasis with their current team, as in the NBA, mediocrity is practically a death sentence.