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The Dwight Howard Problem

Buddy Grizzard looks at Dwight Howard in Atlanta and the traditional big man in the NBA.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Atlanta Hawks attempted a bizarre experiment last season, moving on from perimeter-oriented center Al Horford and signing traditional, post-centric center Dwight Howard to a three-year, $70.5 million deal. In the wake of a first-round playoff series loss to the Washington Wizards in which Howard rode the bench through multiple fourth quarters, the fallout was swift. Mike Budenholzer relinquished his title as President of Basketball Operations while staying on as the coach, Wes Wilcox transitioned from GM to an advisory position, and the Hawks hired Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk as the new head of basketball ops. In the wake of this transformation, the question remains: Was this the result of a bad bet on an individual player and personality in Howard, or was it a failure by the Hawks to spot the larger NBA trend of moving away from traditional post players?

In the early morning of April 28, hours before the Hawks would be eliminated at home in Game 6 against the Wizards, Howard was pulled over for speeding and had his car towed due to no insurance. The incident seemed to confirm every negative story that’s ever been reported about Howard and he immediately became a scapegoat for Atlanta’s first-round playoff failure. Wrote the Associated Press of the task facing Schlenk:

“Perhaps the most pressing issue is Howard, who still has two more years on his contract. Once one of the league’s most dominating players, the 6-foot-11 center endured a disappointing debut season with the Hawks and looked totally out of place by the playoffs.”

But was Howard’s first season in Atlanta really a disappointment? Was he truly to blame for the Hawks’ failure to get past the Wizards? Howard’s 63.3 percent field goal shooting this season was a career-high and sixth-best in the NBA. His 12.7 rebounds per game were fifth in the league and his highest average since the 2011-12 season in which he averaged 20.6 points and 14.5 rebounds. Howard was also sixth in double-doubles and 20th in blocked shots. For perspective, here is a player comparison for last regular season, courtesy of BasketballReference.com, of Howard, Timofey Mozgov (signed to a four-year, $64 million contract by the Lakers last summer) and the Knicks’ Joakim Noah (four years, $72 million).

Mozgov and Noah have obviously been huge disappointments, each playing about half as many minutes as Howard this season. But a comparison of Howard’s Player Efficiency Rating (20.8, 35th) or per 36 minute stats (16.4 points, 15.4 rebounds) to Mozgov and Noah shows what a comparative bargain he is. In addition, the Hawks were able to sign Howard to a short, three-year deal. With only two years remaining on Howard’s deal, he’s not nearly the albatross the other two centers are. If Howard continues to produce in 2017-18, his contract isn’t immovable.

The true comparison for Howard, however, is with Horford, the center he replaced in Atlanta’s starting lineup. After Horford averaged a mere 3.5 rebounds in Atlanta’s four-game sweep to the Cavaliers in the 2016 second round, the Hawks likely saw Howard as a means to upgrade rebounding and rim defense. Horford stumbled against the Cavaliers again in this season’s playoffs, averaging only 4.2 rebounds and posting a team-worst aggregate -97 (his -64 in last year’s Atlanta-Cleveland series was worse than every Hawk except Kent Bazemore). But the fact remains that Horford, a perimeter-oriented center who can guard the pick and roll, guard perimeter players at the three-point line, and positively impact his team with passing, has led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals in two of the last four seasons.

In the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors don’t have a traditional post player playing more minutes than Zaza Pachulia’s 13.6. The closest allegory to a player like Howard playing significant minutes in these Finals is Tristan Thompson, who is playing just under 22 minutes per game for the Cavaliers. The comparison is imperfect. Thompson is vastly superior to Howard in both defending and running the pick and roll. But he’s a roleplayer depended on for defense, rim protection and rebounding, much like Howard’s role toward the latter stages of his career. Even with Thompson’s greater versatility, the Warriors have found success by throwing multiple bodies at him to keep him off the offensive glass. And if he leaves Draymond Green to defend a drive, Green can make him pay by spotting up at the three-point line.

Budenholzer’s inability to retain the multi-dimensional Horford contributed to his downfall as a front office executive. But the death knell for the era of the plodding frontcourt player may have sounded the moment former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie bypassed Kristaps Porzingis to draft Jahlil Okafor. Porzingis was better than advertised defensively and has become the centerpiece of the Knicks’ rebuilding efforts. Okafor has been among Philadelphia’s least productive players according to on/off splits. Executives will likewise need to approach the upcoming draft with caution as it’s littered with prospects like Jarrett Allen in the mid first round, prospects whose skillsets trend toward the archaic big man role that has less and less of a place in the modern game.

For Howard, as he remains a top 40 player in PER, the jury remains out on whether he will continue to impact winning. In Games 1-5 of the Wizards series, the Hawks were easily better with Howard on the court than any other starter, which puts the lie to the lazy narratives blaming him for Atlanta’s failure to get out of the first round. Specifically, in Game 2 and Game 5, close losses when Budenholzer left Howard on the bench in the fourth quarter, the Hawks performed no worse with Howard on the court than the bulk of the starters.

For the Hawks to maximize Howard’s value for the remainder of his contract and maximize the chances another team will accept him in a trade, he must transform his shot profile. Howard remains among the NBA’s least efficient post players, managing only .84 points per possession on post-ups, which ranks in the 38th percentile. By contrast, Howard averages a supremely efficient 1.18 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls, which ranks in the 84th percentile. Sadly, Howard used only 98 possessions as the roll man last season compared to nearly 300 post-up possessions. That number needs to be completely flipped next season. It should be Howard’s goal to attempt at least 300 possessions as the roll man while limiting his post-ups to 100 for the season. Accomplish that shot profile transformation, and Howard will be able to maximize his talents in the remaining years of his contract.

But for the NBA as a whole, look for the trend to continue away from players like Howard and Detroit’s Andre Drummond. The era when post players dominated the NBA is more than a decade in the rearview mirror. Hassan Whiteside recently commented that he plans to develop his outside shot, a dead giveaway that he understands how the role of big men in the NBA is changing. This change will be further cemented if the Warriors, with a pair of multi-talented big men in Green and Kevin Durant, continue to dominate the Western Conference and the NBA Finals conversation for years to come.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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