One of the most curious players on the 2016 free agent market came off the board Friday afternoon when the Atlanta Hawks agreed to terms with eight-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. As reported by The Vertical’s Shams Charania, Howard will make $70.5 million over three years, or just a tad more per-year than the $23.3 player option that Howard turned down to leave the Houston Rockets and become an unrestricted free agent. The 30-year-old center will return to his hometown of Atlanta in the hope of reclaiming the form that made him such a force with the Orlando Magic and a very popular free agent three summers ago.
It must be said that Howard’s chances of making that happen look pretty negative. Howard receives more criticism than he deserves thanks to his disastrous season with Kobe Bryant and the general impression that he likes jokes and candy more than basketball, but he’s still an effective player when healthy enough to stay on the court. Howard suffered through various back, knee, and shoulder woes over the past few seasons but played 71 games in 2015-16, averaging 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, and 32.1 minutes per game with an 18.9 PER. Those aren’t the All-NBA numbers we grew accustomed to during Howard’s heyday, but they’re worth $23.5 million per year in this free-for-all market. In fact, Howard ranks as one of the better bargains on Friday’s list of deals, especially considering the Hawks didn’t have to give him the fourth season that Timofey Mozgov, Joakim Noah, and other more concerning players.
There’s also good reason to think that Howard will be a better fit in Atlanta than he was in Houston. The Rockets’ construction around James Harden meant that Howard rarely got the ball on offense — his 8.5 field-goal attempts per game in 2015-16 were his lowest since his rookie season — and had to take on the bulk of defensive responsibilities as a rim protector. Injuries had robbed him of the defensive brilliance that made the Magic such a quality defensive team, and a lack of chemistry ensured his teammates were in no position to make up the difference. Howard is certainly a player with faults, but the situation in Houston brought out the worst in him.
The Hawks offer a more cohesive team structure with All-Star Paul Millsap and head coach Mike Budenholzer as mainstays. While Al Horford looks on his way out after the Hawks brought back wing Kent Bazemore at $70 million over four years on Friday night, Millsap is one of the best forward defenders in the league and a no-nonsense personality. The Hawks have lots of questions, including whether Dennis Schröder can thrive as a starter now that Jeff Teague is with the Indiana Pacers, but they are reasonable ones for a group that needed to make changes following two consecutive playoff sweeps at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This situation can work for Howard. He will have enough help to be an effective defensive anchor, will be a piece of an offense predicated on balance, and will have enough stable veterans around him to read as a “fun” personality and not a too-silly loser. He should be even better if the NBA changes the rules surrounding intentional fouls.
More than anything, though, Howard should be helped by the fact that no one really expects him to play like a superstar anymore. The Rockets probably shouldn’t have expected a 20-and-10 superstar last season, either, but the expectations that came with his 2013 arrival demanded he do more. The Hawks should have no such illusions. Like all of us, they know what Howard lacks.
If Howard can survive the hit to his ego, he now has a legitimate chance to remake himself as the kind of high-quality center who challenges for an All-Star spot in the less competitive East field. His days as the league’s most dominant interior presence are clearly done, but there are other ways to build a strong reputation in the NBA.
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