How Dwight Howard Fits in Atlanta

Why is Dwight Howard back in his hometown of Atlanta? It comes down to one word: rebounds.

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Nov 2 2016, 12:25pm

Photo by Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard sat in front of his locker on Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia and considered what he'd like his legacy to be.

Speaking about himself in the third person, Howard said, "He never gave up." He paused, gave it some thought. "He always worked hard, had a smile on his face. He never changed for nobody. And he won. He did it."

If that's how Howard wants to be remembered by the basketball world, however, he has some serious work ahead of him in his hometown of Atlanta, where he signed a three-year deal with the Hawks this off-season. It has been nearly eight years since Howard, at just 23, led the 2008-09 Orlando Magic past the defending champion Boston Celtics and their Big Three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett, past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and into the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers.

It was supposed to be the first of many such trips, but Howard hasn't been back. After months of indecision over remaining in Orlando, he was traded by the Magic to the Lakers in 2012, where his clashes with Kobe Bryant destroyed what should have been a championship-contending team. Then came a trip to Houston, where Howard seemed uninterested in playing on a team that revolved around keeping the ball in James Harden's hands.

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His fall from grace reached its nadir this past May, when Charles Barkley—who himself is hardly universally beloved—asked a visibly uncomfortable Howard on national television: "Why don't people like you?"

That's the wrong question, though Howard did his level best to answer it, all while spending a quarter of an hour hearing about his many failings from Barkley and Kenny Smith. What matters is that even in a NBA era where virtually every rule change has made life harder for centers and favored the Steph Currys and LeBrons of the world, Howard has put up numbers that would make him an obvious Hall of Fame candidate if he retired tomorrow: he is arguably the best rebounder in the game, and has accumulated more defensive win shares than any active player save for Paul Pierce, with whom he is virtually tied even though Howard has logged six fewer seasons. Had Howard come along in the age of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, before defensive three seconds and zone defenses, he might have put up bigger numbers and have championship rings. But he insists he's made his peace with the game he's in today.

"It would've been great," Howard said. "But I was put on this earth at the time God wanted me to be here. And throughout my career, I think I've done a pretty good job. But this situation that I'm in now, I have a real opportunity to write my legacy out. To do good at home."

Atlanta doesn't look like a logical fit for Howard at first glance: for the past three years under coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have played a ball-sharing, perimeter game, which would seem to conflict with an old-school offense geared toward Howard post-ups.

But Howard, as an unmatched crasher of the boards and defender of the rim, happens to excel in those areas of the game where the Hawks haven't quite reached an elite level. While Atlanta finished second in defensive ranking last year, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs, they also finished 28th in the league in rebounding percentage, 26th in defensive boards, and 30th in offensive rebounding percentage. Put simply: they were lousy at ending possessions for the other team, and more likely to give opponents a running start on offense whenever they missed a shot.

When you are just happy to be here, and everyone is happy to have you. Photo by Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Enter Howard. For all the criticism he's taken, he's never stopped collecting defensive rebounds at a historic rate. His 29.1 percent mark in 2015-16 matches his career average exactly, a rate that places him third in the history of the NBA, trailing only Dennis Rodman and the great Swen Nater of ABA fame. By offensive rebounding percentage, he's seventh best among active NBA players, and his 11.4 percent mark in 2015-16 lands right around his career rate of 11.8 percent. Both are well above former Atlanta center Al Horford's rates. (Horford is now in Boston.) Add in the edge in block percentage—Horford's 3.6 percent from 2015-16 is a career-high, and well below Howard's career average of 4.4 percent—and it seems likely that the Hawks will be the best defensive team in the league, and it may not be close.

That is how Budenholzer saw Howard fitting in, and he acknowledged that the Hawks and Howard understood each other when the two came to an agreement this summer. The Hawks weren't going to change the way they play—Howard wasn't going to be spoon-fed the ball while the offense that Budenholzer had meticulously built ground to a halt.

"We don't really play that way," Budenholzer said of a post-centered offense. "We play more with ball movement, guys get opportunities. Hopefully within the flow of our offense, he'll get his opportunities. I think it was good for him to see us play the last two or three years, understand what we value, what's important to us. And I think he very much wants to be a part of that."

While Atlanta has a reputation as a freewheeling, effective offensive team, they really weren't that last year. After finishing sixth in offensive rating during their 62-win season two years ago, the Hawks fell to 18th in 2015-16, just ahead of Washington and Denver. While Horford had offensive versatility, but the Hawks can use the high-percentage Howard finishes around the rim. Thirty percent of Horford's shots came from inside two feet last year, compared with 65 percent of Howard's.

"Dwight is a premier roller, and a difficult task out of the post," Sixers coach Brett Brown, a friend and former fellow Spurs assistant with Budenholzer, said. "So the perimeter emphasis Bud has had in Atlanta at one level took a little bit of a hit, because Dwight's a roller and Al's a popper. And I think the benefit of it [for Atlanta] is it really collapses defenses, and allows [Kyle] Korver and [Paul] Millsap, [Kent] Bazemore to be even more free."

Howard's contributions to this Hawks team go beyond the statistics. Teammates went out of their way to praise his leadership and his attitude, unbidden.

"It's huge when you have him coming up to you, telling you don't be afraid, keep shooting," Hawks rookie forward Taurean Prince said of Howard. "Shoot with confidence. He also is telling me to stay aggressive. When a person of that stature is telling you to have confidence, it gives you confidence as well. And pretty much knowing if he misses, eight times out of ten he's going to grab it, [that] helps you as well. That relaxes the entire team."

Howard took seven shots Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia. Whereas that might have become an issue on previous teams in his younger days, the only thing that appeared to matter to Dwight Howard now is that the Hawks won by 32 points.

"I've learned so much being a part of this team," he said. "I think these will be my best years. I've had some great years as a player, but these years coming up are going to be my best years."

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