By the end of July 2016, the worst-kept secret in Atlanta basketball was how different the Hawks’ defense would look down the middle. Franchise cornerstone Al Horford was gone to Boston, replaced at the center position by hometown product Dwight Howard. The two couldn’t have been more different stylistically; Horford the savvy, undersized-but-mobile defensive fulcrum and Howard the glass-eating, shot-blocking interior pillar.
Centers are the most important defensive players in the NBA on balance, and Horford’s skills in particular made him indispensable to Atlanta’s approach. The Hawks didn’t have that traditional rim protector in the paint, but they made up for it and then some by leveraging the mobility of Horford and Paul Millsap into a harassing defense that applied pressure in the right places, making it hard work for offenses to ever find their way to the rim (or their other preferred spots) in the first place.
The Hawks with Horford trapped a ton, snuck hands into unexpected passing lanes and used a sky-high collective team IQ to move as one cohesive unit and beat the ball to the spots teams wanted it in.
It worked: Under Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta never finished a season lower than seventh for rate of opponent turnovers. They consistently forced shots late in the clock as teams found their primary options snuffed out and had to search for secondary stuff. The Hawks forced the fourth-longest average possession length in the NBA last season, per inpredictable.com, and have been in the league’s top third here every year Bud’s been in town. The result was three straight above average defenses, including second overall last year and seventh the previous season.
With Howard in town, some of the changes have been predictable. The Hawks were never bad rim protectors collectively, falling roughly around league average here the last few years. Now they’re among the league’s elite, per SportVU data, buoyed by a sub-45-percent-allowed figure from Howard that ranks among the league’s 10 best volume rim defenders. The effect has trickled down even when he’s off the floor.
“I think that we understand the importance of making sure teams only get one shot, and protecting the basket,” Howard told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Budenholzer] has put the onus on me to start it, and get everybody going. And everybody else has stepped up and done a great job – I think Paul [Millsap], Muscy [Mike Muscala], all our bigs are really trying to protect the basket.”
You’d expect an improvement on the glass moving from the smaller Horford to one of the league’s premier rebounders in Howard, and you’d be right in a big way. The Hawks have been a bottom-five rebounding team by percentage each of Budenholzer’s three years in town; they’re in the NBA’s top 10 this year.
They’re collecting nearly 30 percent of their own misses with Howard on the floor, a number that would rank second in the league among teams, and their defensive rebounding has maintained even when Dwight leaves the floor – another testament to the culture he’s quickly helped instill.
“Both defensively and offensively, he really brings that presence, that physicality,” Budenholzer said of Howard. “Our rebounding is just significantly better.”
This is the part where things start to get a bit weird, though.
Along with the improvements Howard has brought with him to Atlanta, everything we know about NBA basketball would cause us to expect a regression in some of the areas Horford excelled in – namely the harassing, high-turnover defensive style he helped make possible for the Hawks.
Those regressions have not happened. The Hawks are forcing an almost exactly identical rate of opponent turnovers, a mark that remains in the league’s top five for the season. They’re generating 18 points a night off these turnovers, another top-five figure, and they’re still holding teams to longer than average possessions.
“I think the guys have a lot of confidence with Dwight behind them,” Budenholzer said. “I would say we’re never the ‘gambling’ type – we’re not really getting out of what I would call fundamental, sound defensive-type things to create turnovers. It’s mostly just happening out of activity, and hopefully just good, solid defense.”
With Howard on board, none of the gambling Bud wants to avoid is necessary in the first place. Those were good bets in the long run with Horford, but they probably aren’t with Dwight’s skill set. Horford has maybe the quickest hands in the league for a center, and his ability to clog lanes helped make the aggressive style a winning proposition; Howard can accomplish similar things by standing in the paint and being scary. Watch how he creates turnovers simply by positioning himself in the right ways:
The rest of the team hasn’t forgotten how to fly around and mess things up for the offense since Dwight joined up, and those skills are fusing with Howard’s interior protection to create a whole new beast. They’re forcing more cough-ups when he sits, understandable with guys like Millsap and Muscala playing center in a more aggressive style, but not by much.
“I think guys understand that I’m going to be behind them to protect them, so they can be more aggressive,” Howard said. “And that’s the way we want to play defense: Be aggressive, force turnovers and get blocked shots.”
The Hawks are fouling less often, though Budenholzer stops short of crediting Howard’s presence here specifically. They’ve long been among the best teams in the league at limiting opponent three-point percentage, and Dwight’s presence hasn’t changed things here either – they’re still allowing some of the fewest open threes in the league and the opposition’s percentage remains low.
Put it all together, and it seems no defensive adjustment period was needed: The Hawks are the top defensive team in the league through just under a quarter of the season.
To this point, the issues have been on the other side of the floor. Howard and the rest of the starters have struggled to mesh offensively, and the bench is actually doing the heavy lifting far too often. Howard and Dennis Schroder, fresh into his first year as the starting point guard in a detailed offensive scheme, are struggling to find their groove.
This isn’t entirely unexpected, though. Chemistry between point guard and center can be a delicate balance, especially when both guys are in a new situation. Sometimes things just click into place over time, and that’s the patient approach the Hawks are taking.
“It definitely does [take time], especially with a guy who came off the bench and now you’re asking him to start,” Howard told Basketball Insiders. “And then he has to really learn me, and then he has to learn to be that starting point guard, facilitate the offense, stuff like that. You’ve gotta be patient, you know. You’re going to have those games where it seems like it may not work, it seems like it’s never gonna get better. And then you have the games where it’s just, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re looking for.’”
How quickly Bud can reorganize the troops and find some scoring juice could determine this group’s ceiling. It’s still early, but Atlanta’s defense looks every bit like a group that’s been together for years.
Make no mistake, the rest of this Hawks roster deserves real credit for the early defensive success. They’re performing extremely well when Howard sits, even if their superior per-possession defense with him off the floor is a complete mirage (it is – he’s playing much tougher levels of competition, as evidenced by a still-strong figure in defensive RPM, which accounts for team and opponent context).
Leave some praises for the big guy himself, though. Howard has brought a new skill set to a defense that already had a great thing going, and the transition has been seamless.
More than just the skills, he’s brought a culture. Even units without him on the floor are exhibiting subtle signs of a shift. This is what impact veterans do, and Howard is out to prove this is a group to which he still belongs – and even leads.
“Dwight, man…. He commands a lot of respect from a lot of teams, a lot of opponents in the league. Just his presence out there alone changes the dynamic,” Hawks forward Kent Bazemore told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been good for us.”
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