The Atlanta Hawks ended their season where you would notice it the least. On a Friday evening, on the night of the NFL draft, on NBA TV. They couldn’t even make it into the programming of the television station they helped subsidize with their play in the Omni during the 1980s, as TNT had the 2009 Jamie Foxx/Gerard Butler (three-star) thriller ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ to show in Game 6’s time slot last Friday. If anyone did tune in early to give them a chance on NBA TV, they were chased off to another channel by the 22-point lead Washington built up early in its win.
The Hawks gave the NBA 43 wins this season, a top-four showing in defense and a bottom-four showing on the other side of the ball in 2016-17. The team featured an All-Star in Paul Millsap, but the 32-year old was pained at the outset of his 11th season.
Dennis Schröder turned in an inconsistent first year as lead point guard during his fourth NBA campaign, contributing 18-point, 6.3-assist averages in 31 minutes after an offseason that saw the Hawks deal longtime starter Jeff Teague to Indiana to open up a spot for Schröder, while acquiring green rookie (5.7 points on just 40 percent shooting) Taurean Prince.
The killer here is that these three turned it the hell up in the playoffs.
Millsap hit half his shots and averaged 24.3 points over the six games, adding 9.3 boards and 4.3 assists with a steal and a half and four blocks in the series. Schröder expertly moved his way to sterling averages of 24.7 points on 45 percent shooting and 42 percent three-point shooting, with 7.7 assists and only 10 turnovers in the entire series. Meanwhile, rookie Prince started six times and held his own with 11.2 points on 56 percent shooting from field.
The point guard appears to love his home, and is already locked in with a sensible contract that pays him (a starter averaging nearly 25 points in the playoffs!) $15.5 million a year between now and 2021.
Millsap, a man who has made a career out of a 2013 move to Atlanta, said all the right things upon being asked about his impending free agency:
“It’s been great,” Millsap said of his time in Atlanta. “I’m looking to expand this and see where this franchise and this team can go. These last four years have been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Now I’m going to take some time, relax, and see what happens.”
Millsap could make a boffo, plus-$200 million contract from Atlanta, or he and the team that (outwardly) has given every indication that it wants the All-Star back could come to a best-case compromise.
Those late-season notes, for many teams, would be enough to point toward an encouraging summer moving forward. None of those teams (many by choice) employ Dwight Howard, though, and the center’s 13th NBA season landed on an expectedly frustrated note. Jeff Schultz at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution documented Howard’s last 2016-17 day of work on Saturday:
“It was very difficult,” Howard said Saturday. “I want to play. I want to be out on the floor. I want to make a difference. I want to make an impact, and I can’t do that on the bench.”
Schultz noted that Howard (who didn’t play in the final 15:40 of his team’s Game 6 loss) “used the word ‘pissed’ three times” during his slow-burn, end of season discussion with reporters:
Physically, he said he feels “amazing.” Mentally, that’s another story.
After sometimes avoiding speaking to the media following games this season, Howard responded to every question Saturday, even if not always going into great detail. He made it clear he was upset and didn’t deny that his dramatically reduced role was not in the blueprint presented to him before he signed as a free agent.
So yes, player and coach will need to have a conversation.
“That’s something that we have to talk about,” he said. “I can’t give you details here.”
Is it safe to say your role wasn’t what was laid out to you before signing?
“I’ll let you say that. I just want to get ready for next year.”
The Hawks would like to as well, which is why the Dwightlines are so alarming. It’s the only national press the team took in following the wake of its playoff loss, and only time will if that alarming note will rank as good or bad for the franchise. Assuming Howard’s (completely understandable) frustrations with the coaching staff stand as the only memory most fans take away, even with the front office and Millsap on common ground and Schröder emerging on the relative cheap, wouldn’t this Howard load serve as an unfair hit of unnecessary distraction?
Maybe. Even if everything were rosy with Howard – who struggled at times on both ends in the postseason while averaging eight points and 10.7 rebounds in 26 minutes per game, blocking five shots – is this really a lineup worth crowing about moving forward? The Hawks have cap space and the No. 19 overall pick and the chance to see if Millsap can be relied upon into his mid-30s (at his limited height) and if Schröder can build upon the playoff success earned in the face of a weak-link Washington defense. Plus Howard for two more seasons.
If the last few sentences don’t have you jumping to move to Atlanta, imagine how NBA free agents feel. There is so much to admire about members of this group, especially coach and longtime personnel helper Mike Budenholzer; but while many teams would be credited for turning an inconsistent season into 43 wins, this turn didn’t hold up to moderate scrutiny.
The sad part is that Dwight Howard’s attempt at big-usage ways (or, even, big-minute ways) didn’t get in the way of the Atlanta Hawks having a knockout season, in the same way those ways may have during his last few years in Houston. He was a slightly happier, slightly better version of the Houston-Howard in 2016-17. Dwight didn’t get in the way of the Hawks turning into a LeBron-toppler, but that doesn’t take away from the distaste from both sides when the Atlanta-native’s season ended on NBA TV:
“I didn’t come back here just to come back home. I came here to win.”
In spite of all the bunk that has annoyed us for years about Howard, many entered 2016-17 absolutely dying for a happier story from him to cover. Not so much because the press or NBA fandom wanted a rosy end for him and his career, it’s not because we’re swell, but mostly because it’s clear that Howard is going to be around for a while. It would be a marvelous turn for the big man to at least move up to the ranks of palatable, when it comes to influence, if he’s going to be on an NBA payroll for the next half-decade.
The same goes for his play on the court, contributions that come to average well above-average in the end, but not before endless fulminations. Instead of consistent, winning attempts at approximations of past greatness from Howard, we’re only left with the bits and pieces of what never was a complete puzzle. Near-domination, mitigated by stretches of outright indifference. Millstone-level play in amounts that match his fits of approaching what he used to be. A status nobody would shame him, after 13 years of banging in the trenches, for falling far short of.
Still, he’s never offered a nice, easy middle. Then again, the once similarly-loathed Vince Carter also had his frustrations at about the same age. In the years since for VC, the fellow former dunk champion has offered the NBA and its many teams an easily counted-upon, veteran slide down the ranks. He’s still sliding, but in a contented way, and he hasn’t finished yet!
Well short of finding that balance, Dwight Howard’s photographs of his early 30s are fractured. It’s a bummer that even a lessened hit of Dwight Outrage is sometimes the most notable thing about the franchise. The Hawks tempt us far too often with puzzle pieces that seem inspiring in short spurts, but leave the whole enterprising wanting in the end.
Other teams that will be gone until November
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