There were a number of notable moves this offseason, but one that hasn’t seemed to generate a lot of buzz is Dwight Howard taking his talents to Atlanta. The Hawks landed Howard with a three-year, $70 million deal in the early stages of free agency.
At the time Howard agreed to sign, Al Horford, the Hawks’ incumbent center, was considering his free agency options. Horford ultimately decided to sign with the Boston Celtics, leaving the only NBA team he has played for in his nine-year career and the center position all to Howard. Horford joins an up-and-coming Celtics team that has a strong core of young talent, a treasure chest of assets to use in trades and one of the brightest young coaches in the NBA in Brad Stevens.
The question yet to be answered is whether Howard can effectively replace – or even surpass – Horford’s production in Atlanta as the team’s starting center.
Firstly, it should be noted that Howard simply isn’t the same player he was in his prime Orlando Magic years. In the 2008-09 season, Howard averaged 20.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 1.4 assists and one steal, while shooting 57.2 percent from the field. He also won the Defensive Player of the Year award three times in a row (2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11) and was one of the most physically imposing players in the entire NBA. Howard also never missed more than four games in his first seven NBA seasons, but has missed an average of 17 games each season over the last four campaigns.
While Howard isn’t the iron man he once was and he isn’t able to dominate the box score as he used to, he is still a valuable contributor when healthy and engaged. Last season, Howard averaged 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks 1.4 assists and one steal in 32.1 minutes per game. Those numbers are pretty solid for a starting center and could improve if Howard embraces the Hawks’ style of play and his potential role within it. Howard isn’t Horford, so the Hawks will have to adjust the way they play on both ends of the court, but Howard could find himself in a beneficial position if he plays ball.
The Hawks make their living by passing the ball at a high rate and finding open shooters on the perimeter, mixed in with Paul Millsap shooting from midrange and around the rim (with Millsap occasionally stretching out to the three-point line). Howard doesn’t have a midrange jumper, but he can dive to the basket hard off of pick-and-rolls, making himself a big target that will draw help defenders to the rim. Ideally Howard will have an easy opportunity to score at the rim or wide open teammates on the perimeter to pass to, or failing that the ball handler can simply use Howard as a decoy and find an open shooter himself.
This is a staple for every NBA team with a decently athletic big man who can roll hard to the rim and generate gravity. This is also part of the strategy that Stan Van Gundy used to power the Orlando Magic’s offense years ago when Howard was at his best. However, Van Gundy also utilized Howard as a back-to-the-basket center, allowing Howard to post up often in the paint. Howard was never great at this, but was good enough that teams would send help defenders. At this point in his career, opposing defenses are going to force Howard to score one-on-one more often than not, so it makes more sense to utilize Howard in the pick-and-roll. However, Howard isn’t always a willing participant when it comes to this. Last season, Howard only finished pick-and-rolls on 9.3 percent (91 possessions total) of all of his offensive sets, according to Synergy data, which is surprisingly low. By comparison, Horford engaged in the pick-and-roll on 24.7 percent of his offensive possessions (301 possessions total).
Howard needs to be a willing participant in pick-and-roll sets with Dennis Schröder and dive hard to the basket, which will make him a target at the rim and should open up his teammates on the perimeter. Most importantly, Howard can’t pout and lose focus when the Hawks’ offense is being orchestrated primarily on the perimeter. Howard likely won’t be the focal point on the Hawks’ offense, but by being a strong roll-man and fighting for offensive rebounds and putbacks, he could start to rebuild his reputation as one of the league’s more effective all-around centers.
Beyond simple pick-and-rolls, Howard should also benefit by playing alongside Millsap. Millsap is still one of the most underrated power forwards in the league and is one of the best passing big men in the entire game. He can stretch the court with his ability to knock down three-pointers, which means he and Howard shouldn’t encroach on each other’s space offensively. Millsap will be the best power forward Howard has ever played alongside, and if he can recreate even part of the chemistry Horford had with Millsap, he should benefit from that dynamic as well.
Howard should also slot in well next to Millsap defensively. Millsap is one of the best rim protectors at the power forward position, while still mobile enough to match up with smaller players on the perimeter. By adding Howard to the frontcourt, Millsap should be able to stay closer to stretch-fours looking to draw the Hawks’ big men away from the rim. Allowing Millsap to get out on the perimeter more frequently should be a boost for the Hawks considering Millsap’s unique ability to strip the ball from opponents.
“Paul just has a great feel for it,” Kyle Korver said in April. “He’s probably the best big in the league as far as being able to strip down and get steals. It’s tough when a guard is coming off a pick-and-roll, and you’ve got someone way up in there slapping down at the ball. That’s a big part of our defense.”
Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer also acknowledged Millsap’s unique skill.
“He’s amazing on the perimeter with his hands,” Budenholzer said. “It’s just one of his best weapons. We do a few things on activity with hands, and we teach a little bit, but it’s 99.9 percent him and his natural instincts.”
However, Horford and Millsap had established a strong chemistry defensively that was a big part of the Hawks overall success. Both were extremely effective trapping and containing opposing ball-handlers without getting out of position, and were generally able to rotate back to the original defensive assignment. This was a fundamental part of the Hawks’ tough defense, which requires intelligent players to execute effectively. Howard is still an effective rim protector, but now he will also have to coordinate with Millsap to maintain at least part of the Hawks’ high risk, high reward defensive system. It won’t happen overnight, but if it does come together eventually, it could help the Hawks maintain one of the better overall defenses in the NBA.
In Atlanta, Howard has the opportunity to shed the distractions and disappointing play of the past few seasons. He won’t be able to replace Horford’s shooting or the goodwill Al had built up in Atlanta over the last nine seasons, but he can be the effective rebounder, rim protector and rim-running pick-and-roll man the team has needed the last few seasons. How well Howard will ultimately fit in to the Hawks’ schemes will come down to how much he is willing to buy into specific roles he hasn’t always embraced in the past.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.