Within 24 hours of the mayhem that has been this season's free agency starting, Dwight Howard had already found himself a new team, in his hometown of Atlanta. The Hawks picked up the divisive big man on a three-year, $70.5m deal. Even in the inflated market created by this year’s huge salary cap jump – is he really worth that money?
According to Spotrac.com, Howard’s contract will pay him an estimated $22,488,038 in year one, rising to $24,511,962 by year three. His salary averages $23.5m per season, a huge sum to swallow for a player coming off his worst season since his Rookie year.
Add to that the fact that Howard will be entering his thirteenth season, is the wrong side of thirty and is a big man with a history of back and leg injuries and it makes you wonder what the Hawks were thinking.
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A change of direction
By signing Howard, Atlanta effectively waved good-bye to Al Horford. Horford didn’t want to play with Dwight, is arguably a better player and now the Celtics (who were also chasing Howard) inadvertently have D12 to thank for landing Big Al.
This is clearly a transition year for Atlanta. Teague and Horford, both All-Star caliber players, are gone. Millsap could become disgruntled following the Hawks recent (and quite public) attempts to trade him. But despite any steps they take backwards this season, they will likely remain a decent Eastern Conference team. And a large part of that could be down to Dwight.
Despite his age, injuries and relaxed approach to the game, Howard can still be a monster on both ends of the floor. He’s a player that thrives on touches and feeds off the pick & roll, both of which he saw in limited numbers during his time in Houston. This should all change as he pairs up with Dennis Schroeder.
Schroeder is not a great shooter, but he can handle, drive and dish. Dwight will give him space and Dennis will be able find his big man around the hoop. Together they can magnify each other’s strengths and hide their weaknesses.
So how bad was he last year?
Although last year was statistically Dwight's worst season since his rookie year, beneath the standard game stats, he was still efficient. His usage percentage was just 18.4 percent. In no other season (barring his rookie campaign) has this number dipped below 21 percent. For comparison, Harrison Barnes, arguably the fifth option on last season’s Warriors, had a usage percentage of 15.9 percent.
In fact, according to Synergy Sports Tech, the Rockets used Howard on just 13.7 possessions per game. That’s pretty low, especially when the 6'11" Center was supposed to be second in Houston’s pecking order behind Harden. But, even in his limited opportunities Howard managed to remain relevant.
Howard shot 70 percent in half court sets and 75 percent in transition showing both his abilities to react and move with the flow of the game. That said, even with a decade in the league Howard has failed to add any finesse to his game since jumping to the NBA from high school. A go-to move is something vitally important to an aging post player in order to extend their earning window just a little further. Dwight clearly lacks this, shooting just 48 percent from the post last season.
Let’s not forget his free throws either (as much as we want to). A career worst 48.9% from the charity stripe. His inefficiency at the line has seen him become one of a number of players subject to the “hack-a” tactic and, unless the league change the rules and bail out the poor shooters, this will continue to restrict Howard's impact in close games. Having said that, Dwight has (finally) committed to improving this aspect of his game with shooting coach Chris Matthews.
So, in summary, the Hawks have overpaid but they have done so within a market full of inflated salaries. The cap jump has changed the way teams spend, and with it set to jump again next summer, Howard’s contract might not look as bad. But, in signing the big man, the Hawks have taken a step backwards in their development and will need to improve elsewhere to make up the lost ground.
For Howard, in what must surely be his final big contract, he has the chance to restore his reputation in his home town – an extremely rare opportunity in American sports. Whilst you can expect him to bounce back somewhat on last season’s performances, Hawks fans shouldn’t get too excited by Howard’s dreams of bringing a title to Atlanta. In all likelihood, it’s too late for Howard to turn that into a reality.