“The biggest thing in life is being around people who lift you up, not put you down.”
– Dwight Howard
The Atlanta Hawks employ a system that has no superstar: it requires teamwork, effort, and a lot of selflessness to pull off their style of play. In he past, it’s worked for them because the Hawks had all the right pieces, molded after the mighty Spurs offense of San Antonio, where coach Bud learned from the one and only Gregg Popovich. In many ways, the Hawks’ roster 5 is a watered-down version of the Spurs, except that the starters can stretch out to the 3-point arc, making defensive rotations a nightmare for opposing teams.
Since he was drafted in 2007, Al Horford was a Tim Duncan-esque figure – reserved, yet silently competitive, and a centerpiece to a non-centerpiece system. A stoic Horford did whatever was required of him to get the ball in the hoop and keep it out of his own.
The video below shows how the Hawks offense functioned around Al and heavily depended on the versatility of their starting unit, as well as making extra passes and always looking for an easier bucket:
The Hawks focused more on screens and complex motion plays as opposed to stagnating post-ups and ball stopping isolation plays; but the same offensive principles that made them strong in the regular season, hurt them in the Playoffs, when the game slowed down and iso-ball became a necessary evil.
Sensing how Horford excelled in the Hawks’ motion heavy system, the Celtics sensed he would hold massive value playing in Stephens’ similarly brilliant system in Boston. His departure in free-agency left a massive Al Horford sized hole which will be difficult, if not impossible, to fill. Was there a free agent big man available this off-season who is as unselfish as Horford, can pass the ball from the post, shoot threes, and help space the floor to give others room to shoot?
The Hawks signed Dwight Howard as his replacement – so apparently there wasn’t.
Nothing against Dwight Howard: there’s lots to like about his game and what he can bring to the Atlanta team. He simply lacks the most important quality required to work in their system: unselfishness. He left the Rockets because he wasn’t getting enough of the ball, as per his interview on ESPN:
“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?’
Dwight Howard, Dwight Howard Q&A: Superman returns?
Dwight is complaind about his lack of touches and the openly admitted to the media that he became disinterested after the season was over. Perhaps if he had been more vocal about his dissatisfaction during the season, when changes could have been made, the chemistry problems in Houston’s locker-room might have been avoided. Instead, over the course of the regular season, Dwight Howard talked about playing together for the common goal of winning and not letting individual concerns affect play on the court.
Now he wants to talk about not getting touches and how that affected his play on the court? It’s patently hypocritical, honestly.
His complaints weren’t just hypocritical – they were unrealistic: Dwight led the league in post touches this season with 3 more post touches (9.8 per game) than the next highest player (6.8 per game). He got plenty of touches: he just didn’t convert those touches into points. It’s one thing for Dwight to complain about too few touches in the post; it’s another thing to complain about not getting touches when he actually did.
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.”’
Dwight Howard, Dwight Howard Q&A: Superman returns?
Dwight’s attitudes about his role in an offense, and how he should best be utilized, bring into question how Mike Budenholzer can smoothly fit Howard into their system without a dramatic departure from the principle of unselfish play which has kept them in contention in the East over the last few years.
Horford’s spacing caused so much trouble for opposing rim protectors that Millsap’s career underwent a career renaissance with so much open court to get easy buckets. With Dwight crowding the paint, Millsap will find it a lot harder to score the ball. In the 2014-2015 season, Millsap took 38.5% of his shots within 5 feet of the hoop and made 61.4% of those shots – that’s with Horford rotating out to the 3-point line to provide space for Millsap to finish without a contest from help defenders. With Howard in the paint, there is another body to take up space, which reduces the chances of Millsap finishing. The situation is eerily similar to the Blake DJ log jam in LA – except with inferior talent.
However, there are ways that Budenholzer can utilize Howard’s skill set effectively: instead of using Horford’s 3 point shooting to create gravity on the perimeter, the Hawks can use Howard in the pick-and-roll. Dwight has a big body and is still incredibly agile for his size; therefore, he can create space for the ball-handler to shoot or he can receive a pass and roll to the basket for a finish. This ends in one of two ways – either a quick kick out for an open three-pointer, because the pick-and-roll opened up the defense and a wing defender came over to help, or it ends in a quick, but typically flashy, Dwight Howard dunk. Just one problem: Since his days on the Magic, every team which signed Dwight envisioned the same pick-and-rolls, but they never quite materialized.
If Dwight fully buys in to the system, and lets Bud focus on bringing out the best out of his game, Dwight’s productive touches would increase significantly, even if that effectiveness comes at the expense of overall touches. This signing obviously has the potential to make Atlanta a dangerous defensive unit, with sleeper potential to become a borderline elite team on offense. The only thing standing in the way of the Hawks’ success is Dwight’s ego, which doesn’t want to just roll to the basket and finish. The league has known for a while now that Howard is quite capable of this style of play – maybe Atlanta isn’t the only party in this deal who need to make a few Dwight changes.