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Dwight Howard Has Transformed The Hawks

For years, the Atlanta Hawks have had two guiding philosophies. Under coach Mike Budenholzer, the club has prioritized moving the ball in an uptempo offense, fashioning every player into a jump-shooting threat. On defense, Atlanta thrived thanks to the unusual frontcourt mobility of Paul Millsap and Al Horford. While neither was a traditional rim protector, the team used an array of hedges and switches to slow down pick-and-rolls and limit drives to the basket.

With that in mind, things were bound to get interesting one way or another this season. Horford bolted for the Celtics over the summer, taking with him the unique passing and mobility he provides at the center position. He was replaced by Dwight Howard, who is a totally different player from a stylistic standpoint even if he’s a surefire Hall of Famer. The Hawks, who for years lived on ball movement and swiftness, seem to be replacing those virtues with brute strength.

The swap — along with promoting point guard Dennis Schröder to a starting role after dealing away former All-Star Jeff Teague — has brought about some encouraging signs for the 8-2 Hawks, who probably needed a bit of a shake-up despite their relative success in recent years. Howard’s replacing Horford doesn’t necessarily make the Hawks more of a contender, but the move at least allows them to try a different look, both offensively and defensively, in hopes of finding a way forward.

Howard on the boards

The clearest difference from last season is the team’s overnight transformation into an offensive-rebounding powerhouse.

The Hawks from previous years — much like the Spurs model that Budenholzer borrowed from his time as an assistant in San Antonio — didn’t concern themselves with offensive rebounding, instead preferring to space the court and simply retreat back on defense following a miss.

As such, Atlanta ranked dead last in offensive-rebound rate in 2015. This year’s team, by contrast, is tied for the NBA’s fourth-best offensive-rebounding rate. The Hawks, who had ranked in the NBA’s bottom five in second-chance points in each of the previous three seasons, are currently ninth in second-chance points per game. Howard has everything to do with that. His personal numbers look good — he’s averaging 14.8 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, with eight double-doubles in 10 games — but his effect on Atlanta’s overall numbers appear to be even better. The club’s 31.1 percent offensive-rebound percentage with him on the court this season would be tied for the highest in the league, alongside the Chicago Bulls. The team’s offensive-rebound rate falls to a below-league average rate of 22.2 percent when Howard is on the sideline.

Between those easy putbacks, and Howard’s pick-and-roll feeds from Schröder, Atlanta is shooting nearly 67 percent at the rim — up from just over 60 percent last year — second only to the Golden State Warriors so far. (Note the proximity that NBA.com uses for its at-the-rim stats differs slightly from the one the site uses in its shot charts, embedded below, but the trend holds true in both.) Howard, taking more than 80 percent of his shots from there (and also connecting on about 67 percent of those attempts), is fundamentally changing the way the team’s shot chart looks in the process.

Howard on the block

Before Tuesday’s quad injury, Howard was enjoying a bit of a renaissance after three frustrating seasons in Houston, where he felt underutilized and in the shadow of James Harden. Aside from cleaning the glass for easy putbacks, he was jelling with Schröder in pick-and-roll scenarios, regularly catching lobs from his new point guard, who appears to be making a concerted effort to keep him involved. And defenses, as much as they’d like to flood the paint to prevent Howard from getting easy baskets, have been reluctant to help too much in that part of the floor. Usual suspects such as sharpshooter Kyle Korver, along with Kent Bazemore and Millsap, are all threats to connect from outside if left open as a result of overhelping.

With the Rockets, Howard’s offensive involvement wavered from time to time. Consider the fact that Howard received 6.7 passes per game from Harden during his first year there, before getting just 2.2 passes from him in 2014 and 4.5 passes from the Rockets star in 2015. Schröder, in Atlanta’s equal-opportunity system, is finding Howard more than eight times a night, according to SportVU tracking.

Perhaps because of those frequent opportunities — and the fact that he’s no longer wondering if or when he’ll touch the ball, the way he sometimes did in Houston — Howard’s possessing the rock for shorter amounts of time as opposed to slowing his team’s offense to back down an opponent and force up an ugly hook shot, merely to create a scoring chance for himself.

YEAR SECONDS PER TOUCH DRIBBLES PER TOUCH
2013 1.82 0.70
2014 1.84 0.62
2015 1.59 0.50
2016 1.39 0.45
Dwight Howard is making faster decisions

Source: nba.com

Because Schröder’s passes have generally left him with nothing to do but lay the ball in, particularly against lesser opponents such as the Sixers, Howard’s average time of possession per touch is down nearly 16 percent from last season and has decreased more than 27 percent from two seasons ago. Additionally, his dribbles per touch are down 10 percent and 27 percent, respectively, from last year and two years ago, according to SportVU.

Can it last?

Yet for all that, it’s fair to wonder how much of Atlanta’s hot start is sustainable.

Schröder, in his first year as a starter, probably won’t finish this season with a higher three-point mark (42.9 percent so far) than his overall field-goal percentage last year (42.1 percent). Howard left Tuesday night’s win with a thigh bruise, and the injury will be a problem if it persists. The team is already thin in spots, including at center, since backup big man Tiago Splitter is still recovering from a February hip surgery. And there’s also the matter of the team’s soft schedule (fifth-easiest in the NBA) to this point: The Hawks are the only team to have beaten the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers, but as of Wednesday afternoon, five of their eight wins had come against Philadelphia, Washington and Miami, the Eastern Conference’s three worst teams.

Still, Atlanta — outscoring opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions — has generally dominated its competition. The Hawks are limiting opposing offenses to just over 95 points per 100 plays, second-best in the NBA, trailing only the Clippers.

The defense, which has been active and has deflected more passes than any Eastern Conference team, appears to be staying home a bit more often than in years past, to allow Howard to serve as a rim protector as opposed to chasing guards all over the court. That has paid dividends: They’re limiting opponents to 52.8 percent shooting from inside five feet, outpacing last year’s impressive 55.5 percent mark.

Even with all this in mind, and Howard playing well, the same question as before still faces this team: Does the team — however good it might be — realistically have enough scoring, or enough stoppers, to get the best of LeBron James and the Cavaliers?

Probably not. But by changing their look, and playing more inside-out than they have in years past, there might be a little more intrigue this time around, even if the end result turns out to be the same.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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