New Faces: Dwight Howard, Jarrett Jack, Malcolm Delaney, Taurean Waller-Prince (R), DeAndre Bembry (R)
2015-16 Regular Season Record: 48-34
2015-16 Regular Season Achievements: 1st: Field Goal %(Defense), 2-Point % (Defense). 2nd: Assists. 3rd: Steals. 4th: Blocks. 5th: Points (Defense). 6th: 3-Point % (Defense). 7th: 2-Point %. 8th: Free Throw %.
Leading Scorer: Paul Millsap, 17.1
Leading Rebounder: Paul Millsap, 9.0 rebounds
Great sports encores are a fixture in the movies but in real life they are hard to come by. The challenge to come close to their 60 win season in 2015-16 was a lot of Atlanta Hawks dreaming. But, before the season began no one imagined that trading their second leading scorer would be on the table. The Hawks tried to move Jeff Teague (15.7 points, 5.9 assists) all year and finally did so after the season. Teague’s absence made room for the Hawks acquisition of Dwight Howard.
Howard was a necessary piece for the Hawks. They were last in the league in offensive rebounding, 24th in total rebounds. While Howard has descended as a player with his health and his ego getting in the way, his one dominant trait is rebounding. He will give the Hawks multiple possessions if he is happy. But that is the elephant in the room.
Will Dwight Howard be happy?
Sensitive to a fault, Howard has to feel as if the bulk of the possessions are about him. He has admitted to quitting on plays because of pouting. But set his fragile ego aside. The beauty of the Hawks style is the Spurs offensive system of ball movement and player movement. No one person is the star; the system is the star. How is Howard going to function when he is not idealized?
Howard has not adapted to the era. He is not a skilled mid-range shooter like Al Horford, who he is replacing. He doesn’t space the floor. Howard is old school, in the paint, swallow up rebounds and feasting off of putbacks and trips to the line. He will also help the Hawks there.
Atlanta was last in free throw attempts. Howard makes a living at the line and he also makes a living being intentionally fouled and choking under pressure. The downside for the Hawks when this strategy is used against them is that the frequent stoppage and interruptions muck up the offense and take away the rhythm the Hawks offense is predicated on.
Howard is coming home and the first month there will be a honeymoon period but often playing in the most familiar place brings on more pressure, not less. Add that to the contract Howard signed, perhaps his last, and he is going to be credited or blamed, regardless of what the Hawks do.
The trading of Jeff Teague puts all the onus on Dennis Schroder. His decision making for 36 minutes will be severely tested. Can he quiet his inner go for broke I’m just going to jack up shots offense, which has plagued him since his rookie year? He has been known to not think the game, to be selfish, to look for himself. He’ll have veteran Jarrett Jack behind him which will steady things for the second unit. Jack, a local star at Georgia Tech once upon a time, is a mature player who can play both guard positions.
Kyle Korver had a down year last year and it looks like age has finally caught up with him. His specialty, three point shooting, took a dip and that’s how it starts with older players. Kent Bazemore had a breakout year and should continue to make an impact on offense and defense.
In 2014-15, the Hawks had the greatest season in their history. There were so many superlatives that created their 60 win season: the Hawks selfless ball movement, their accuracy from the perimeter, their quality defense, their interdependence on one another, their toughness- all of it fit together for the best record in the Eastern Conference. But once the playoffs arrived the Hawks shooters, Kyle Korver especially, looked gassed. If Korver isn’t making three’s on offense, he’s just an interchangeable part. Coaches burning the midnight oil and watching a lot of tape figured out that when you play the Hawks you stay with shooters and force them to beat you off the dribble. It worked. That and the fact the Hawks didn’t have size. Or a star who demanded double teams.
The playoffs in 2016: the story was pretty similar. The Hawks were out worked and out-athletic(ed) on the boards. Shots didn’t fall. Their defense against two great iso scorers (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving) was pathetic and their three point defense go them laughed at.
It’s a three point shooting league, something the Hawks took advantage of last season. Can it continue? Or, a better question is, should it? They have Howard. Shouldn’t the offense change to get the most out of Howard?
In past seasons, exhaustion has worn the Hawks down. They are a jump shooting team that doesn’t have the luxury of getting a lot of easy baskets. Enter Howard and his put backs. The three point shots that used to be their layups are not as much of a necessity now.
In the regular season, barring injury, the Hawks can reach their same level as last year. There aren’t many questions about them drilling shots in opponents faces and racking up high scores. But they haven’t fixed their major issue. They are absent a player who requires a double team so really what is their ceiling? The same as last year?
Paul Millsap is the Hawks toughest player and go to guy when the Hawks are desperate. But no one fears Millsap. Yes, he gives the Hawks their blue collar identity but he’s an undersized power forward with a lot of grit, low on the athleticism scale. As for Dwight Howard, there are things Howard can do and a lot he cannot.
The Hawks will have an adjustment period. Losing Al Horford is going to be a huge change. They start out with a manageable schedule. Their first five opponents didn’t make the playoffs: Wizards, 76ers, Kings, Lakers. By the time they play game number 20 they should be 13-7 on their way to another year with championship hopes. But their lack of a star who can save games, take over games, get favorable calls, make shots and free throws down the stretch with all the scrutiny from the opposition, is still their weak link.
photo via llananba