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The Dwight Howard Problem

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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.

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About Buddy Grizzard

Buddy Grizzard

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