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Dwight Howard Brings New Layer to Hawks’ Defense

Dwight Howard adds a layer to the Hawks’ defense without sacrificing what made it special, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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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.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.

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NBA All-Star Saturday Recap

Brian Slingluff recaps All-Star Saturday from Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders is here to recap an eventful All-Star Saturday that led to three first-time champs in the various skills contests. Let’s get right to it.

Taco Bell Skills Challenge

In Saturday night’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the “Bigs” team, boasting 3 All-Stars, set out to claim a third straight title. The competition kicked off with Joel Embiid coming from behind to best Al Horford, and sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen swishing his first 3 point attempt to eliminate Andre Drummond. On the Guard side, Buddy Hield had an early lead before losing out to Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray upset hometown favorite Lou Williams.

In the semifinals, Markkanen was able to dispatch Joel Embiid, who struggled with the pass portion of the competition, and Dinwiddie topped Jamal Murray by making his first 3 pointer for the second consecutive round.

In the Final round, Dinwiddie finally missed a 3 pointer, but it did not matter as he finished with a wire to wire victory over Lauri Markkanen. Dinwiddie, competing in front of his friends and family, was able to end the Bigs’ two year win streak in impressive fashion.

JBL Three Point Contest

The event started off with Tobias Harris scoring a solid 18 points. Wayne Ellington was next, sporting the hot new alternate Miami Vice jersey. Ellington started off cold and heated up on his last three racks, ending up with a score of 17. Devin Booker and former three-point champion Klay Thompson tied for a round-high 19 points. Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry struggled from the start and never found a rhythm, falling short of making the championship round. Defending champion Eric Gordon never got it going, and would not defend the title, scoring only 12 points.

In the Championship round, Tobias Harris was on fire through the first 3 racks, but quickly got cold, scoring 17 points. Devin Booker was next and could not miss, scoring 28 points, leaving Klay Thompson a high number to match. Thompson fell just 3 points short, and Devin Booker was crowned the 2018 JBL Three Point Champion.

Verizon Slam Dunk Contest

The final and most anticipated event of the night started with Donovan Mitchell bringing out a second hoop, bouncing it off the second backboard and finishing with an impressive windmill dunk, scoring a 48. Victor Oladipo followed with a difficult look-away alley oop dunk attempt that he was unable to complete, totaling 31 points from the judges. Dennis Smith Jr. had a nice reverse double pump that got 39 points and Larry Nance Jr., in a throwback Phoenix jersey, payed homage to his father’s cradle dunk, nailing it almost exactly for a score of 44 points.

Oladipo started the next round of dunks by borrowing Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther mask, and scoring 40 points with a tomahawk windmill dunk. Smith Jr. hit a seemingly impossible reverse 360, through the legs, switching hands dunk for a perfect score of 50. Nance Jr. pulled off a Vince Carter level windmill, nearly missing a perfect score. Mitchell jumped over comedian Kevin Hart to advance to the finals against Larry Nance Jr.

In the Finals, Nance started things off with a windmill alley-oop with some help from Larry Nance Sr., garnering a score of 46. Mitchell completed the difficult one handed alley-oop he had attempted in the previous round, scoring a perfect 50. Nance Jr. answered with an incredible double pass off the backboard dunk, scoring yet another 50 points.  Mitchell ended the contest with a Vince Carter tribute dunk, coming out on top by just two points. It capped off an exciting Saturday night, setting things up for the main event on Sunday, Team LeBron versus Team Stephen.

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David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled

David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.

He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.

He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.

“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”

Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.

He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.

“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”

Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.

He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.

“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”

The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.

“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”

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