The 2017 playoffs were the worst of Dwight Howard’s career. His 26.2 minutes were a career low. Howard was benched in the 4th quarter of games when everything was on the line. Despite the logic of the Hawks needing to go small which made all the sense in the world, it was demoralizing for Howard, particularly because Howard came to Atlanta to be treated a little bit better than in Los Angeles where he was a junior associate to Kobe Bryant’s first chair, and in Houston, where Howard struggled to earn respect in the on-court relationship with James Harden who often froze him out. Not participating in key moments reacquainted Howard with the anger and frustration that has followed him in his recent career. There was a price to pay.
In Howard’s 12 year playoff career prior to 2017, he always shot over 50%. His most extraordinary was four years in a row (2010-13) he shot over 60%. This year, he shot 50% on the nose and only took six shots. It was fewer shots than the regular season and a worse percentage. In fact, Howard took the fewest amount of shots of anyone on the Hawks who logged 20+ minutes in the playoffs. Howard averaged 10.7 rebounds, two rebounds fewer than the regular season.
It’s been three years since Howard averaged 26 points in the playoffs. There are all kind of excuses and justifications as to why, notably his age, an erosion of skills and Paul Millsap and Dennis Schroder are more trusted players and are more efficient when the Hawks have the small lineup. Howard, at this stage in his career is a big who plays big.
But for Howard, it is not much of a consolation, all the big vs. small arguments. Indirectly, Mike Budenholzer was making a tactical decision about Howard who cannot help but personalize the end result, that his defense was not significant enough to outweigh his offense and size deficiencies. Earlier in the series, Budenholzer said, in effect, Howard just needed to play harder, a familiar knock on Howard who has a habit of drifting in and out of games.
Last summer, after a torturous year in Houston, the appeal of Atlanta was the career circle becoming complete. More than likely, it was Howard’s last max deal and what better place than home? But the money can be tricky when measured against expectations. The money may get you on the court, in games, but it won’t keep you there, won’t solve issues of appreciation, philosophy and stability. Howard signed in Houston for that same reason, the money, and it turned into a nightmare with a coach fired and Howard going rogue after he had no fit and wasn’t supported by upper management. Some of it was his fault. Some of it wasn’t. But when money is the litmus test, and is framed within the parameters of respect- then you have to live with the consequences.
The Hawks style of play, their star-less ball movement system, was never the right blueprint for Howard to re-establish himself as a borderline All-Star. In fact, the case can be made that the NBA has passed Howard by.
Howard never developed an offensive skill set and in multiple ways he is the same player on offense he was when he was 24; he hasn’t adapted. Evolutionary scientists point to species that die when they don’t evolve. There are a few rare Howard big men in the NBA, those who are always lurking in the paint, shot blockers feasting off of put-backs. Most bigs these days spread the floor.
Take young guys Jusuf Nurkic (Blazers) and Nikola Jokic (Nuggets). Nurkic shot 44.8% in the mid-range and 39.3% on long threes and he still grabbed 10.4 rebounds. Nikola Jokic shot 62% on shots 3-10 feet and 53% 10-16 feet and 55.2% on long twos. He pulled 9.8 rebounds.
Dwight Howard shot 32% 3-10 feet, 33% 10-16 feet and 26.1% on long twos and 12.7 rebounds.
The only one with the problem here is Howard. The Hawks did the right thing by transferring Jeff Teague out and giving Dennis Schroder control. Schroder asserted himself in the playoffs and answered all the questions about meeting the moment. Paul Millsap was Paul Millsap, tough, committed, focused. Howard was supposed to anchor the team ala Al Horford. But, Howard struggles in this system. He struggles with offense and he is not the athlete he used to be, and when he isn’t being relied upon he drifts and then broods about it.
Going home is supposed to mean inserting yourself among your people. Their is no pretense or subterfuge because they know you. They love you. But most of the going home stories end badly because expectations can never be met. Howard had the complication of replacing Al Horford who was a natural fit in Budenholzer’s offense and frankly Howard is awkward in the system.
He has been awkward in Atlanta.
“It was very difficult. I want to play. I want to be out on the floor. I want to make a difference. I want to make an impact and I can’t do that on the bench.” (Dwight Howard)
Howard hopes a meeting with Budenholzer will clear up the issues between how he sees himself and how his coach sees him but really, it is just one more Howard miscalculation, as if he never saw the Hawks play, as if he thinks he is Dwight Howard 2008-09 who went to the NBA Finals. He is not that person. At best, he has a role to play but no longer the dominant big man of yesterday, despite how many zeroes are on his paycheck.
photo via llananba