Dwight Howard did the expected last week: He walked away from $23.2 million to pursue free agency.
That an athlete is willing to leave that much cash on the table speaks to the deep-seated distaste Howard has for the Houston Rockets organization, which used him on 18.4 percent of possessions this season, his lowest rate in 11 years.
“This will be my last chance for a really big contract,” he told Jackie MacMullan last month.
The 30-year-old center, once dubbed Superman and painted as a player capable of revolutionizing the position, has had his name and reputation dragged through the mud ever since he left Orlando. To be sure, he didn’t do much on the court to quell the tumult.
Here are three franchises that can best maximize Howard’s remaining potential.
Much of the feasibility with Atlanta hinges on whether Al Horford re-signs with the team, and, it’s worth noting, Atlanta has his Bird Rights, meaning the Hawks can go over the cap to retain him.
Howard was born and bred in Atlanta, having played his high school career at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy before he was taken No. 1 overall in the 2004 NBA draft. There are substantiated and obvious reasons why players return to their hometowns in free agency, and this would mark yet another player falling in line with the narrative.
Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks plummeted from sixth in offensive efficiency in 2014-15 to 18th last season. While the team shot its way to its best regular-season campaign in franchise history two years ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, when the shots stopped falling so too did the team’s second-chance scoring opportunities.
Consider that the Hawks ranked 28th in rebound rate last season, and have been one of the five worst rebounding teams in the league each of the past four seasons. In the Hawks’ second-round loss to the Cavaliers, Cleveland nearly out-rebounded Atlanta by plus-30. Overall, the Hawks grabbed the third-fewest contested rebounds of any team in the league (12.1); Howard grabbed 4.2 on his own.
Howard isn’t exactly a perfect match for Budenholzer’s up-tempo offense, but if Howard is engaged — and that is admittedly a big if — he can contribute in transition. Don’t expect him to run the floor at the same rate as any guard, but in spurts he can contribute in transition.
While Howard’s on-court production has noticeably regressed in recent years, the one thing he can still do — and do well — is corral rebounds: He collected 835 last season, fifth-most of anyone in the league. He was one of just a handful of players to rank in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
Atlanta needs him to wipe the glass, too: The Hawks scored 316 points off put-backs last season, dead last in the NBA, 217 fewer than the Rockets scored.
Seeing as Howard is looking to contribute within the flow of the offense, it’s worth noting that the Hawks ranked fifth in the league last season in post touches per contest (19.8), feeding the ball into the interior more than the Rockets (18.4).
“I allowed not getting the ball to affect me,” Howard told MacMullan. “That’s on me.”
Portland Trail Blazers
Terry Stotts’s team vastly outperformed any and all expectations last season. Lost in the blur of the Trail Blazers’ dream-like run to the conference finals was who their starting center was: Mason Plumlee.
Howard is surely an upgrade over Plumlee, who brings neither offensive nor defensive awareness to the table.
Portland allowed opponents to score 0.94 points per possession on post-ups, the second-highest mark in the league. In total, the Trail Blazers allowed 773 points on post-ups, the most of any team.
Worth noting, then, is Howard’s defensive prowess.
Offensively, pairing Howard with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — two of the six best pick-and-roll players in the game last season, in terms of total points scored as the pick-and-roll ball handler — would be a fruitful recipe.
If fit was a concern, the Mavericks wouldn’t have chased DeAndre Jordan through the woods of Dramaville last year. Both Jordan and Howard play mirroring games: defend the rim, control the interior and throw down alley-oops like they’re trying to tear the rim off the backboard.
As expected, without Jordan, Dallas was unable to manufacture much in the paint, ranking 27th in points in the paint and 29th in put-back points.
A dearth of rebounding proved fatal for Dallas in the postseason. Rick Carlisle said as much: “Rebounding is a big challenge. It’s been a big challenge for us all year. We’ve got to get some monsters that push and shove, throw people out of the way and go get the ball. We’ve got to get more of those guys.”
Additionally, there’s something comforting about knowing Howard will never attempt a shot outside of five feet from the rim. “I don’t like messing up,” he told MacMullan. “I didn’t want to turn on the TV and see people say, ‘Dwight is taking all those outside shots, he’s screwing around, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to win.’”
Howard holding down the paint would allow Dirk Nowitzki — assuming he re-signs in Dallas — to find more spot-up opportunities away from the basket and along the perimeter, and help Carlisle’s spacing immensely.
Houston barely put Howard in pick-and-roll situations, illustrated by the fact that he ranked lower than players like Luis Scola, Joffrey Lauvergne and Frank Kaminsky last season in total points as the roll-man. Howard’s offensive production might improve with screen-and-roll veterans like J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, who each scored at least 0.79 points per possession on that play type, a higher mark than players like Monta Ellis, Rajon Rondo and Manu Ginobili.
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