Dwight Howard Is Fitting in Perfectly With the Atlanta Hawks
This season felt over before it started, with the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the re-tooled 73-win Golden State Warriors consensus favorites to meet for a third straight year in the NBA Finals.
Thankfully for fans of chaos and haters of the sinking feeling of inevitability, things have not played out that way so far this season.
The Los Angeles Clippers are the team that is dominating the NBA so far in 2016-17 -- not the Warriors -- as they lead the Association in average margin of victory at 14.92 and sit atop of our NBA Team Power Rankings with a ridiculous team nERD (our proprietary metric that's predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage) of 96.0. The Warriors are all the way down that list (by their standards) in sixth with a nERD of 68.4.
Trailing just behind those world-beater Clippers is neither the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers nor the perpetually elite San Antonio Spurs nor even the hey-we-were-the-second-best-team-in-the-East-last-year Toronto Raptors. No, in second place in our power rankings is the nobody-believed-in-us Atlanta Hawks.
Going into this season, the Hawks felt long removed from the team that won 60 games in 2014-15. Jeff Teague was traded to the Indiana Pacers to make way for the unproven Dennis Schroder to run the show from the point this summer, while DeMarre Carroll and Al Horford both bolted in free agency during the last two offseasons, respectively.
On opening night of 2016-17, all that was left of the starting lineup that were five-way co-Player of the Month honorees in January 2015 was an over-the-hill Kyle Korver and the perpetually underrated Paul Millsap. Their lineup is filled out by the newly-acquired Dwight Howard -- who many thought was past his prime -- and a bunch of spare parts ranging from "pretty good" (Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha) to decidedly "meh" (Kris Humphries, Tim Hardaway Jr.).
While many pundits had the Hawks as a middle-of-the-pack team coming into this season (our algorithms had them 10th, for whatever that's worth), they have been proving a lot of people wrong through 11 contests, dominating just about every area of the game:
|Margin of Victory||9.64||2nd|
|Simple Rating System||8.29||2nd|
If you look at how the Hawks are performing in Dean Oliver's "Four Factors of Basketball Success", you can see some excellent trends emerging that could suggest that the Hawks are capable of keeping this level of play up as well (particularly on the defensive end):
Offensive Four Factors
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||53.5%||3rd|
|Offensive Rebounding Percentage||26.2%||6th|
|Free Throw Rate||0.224||11th|
Defensive Four Factors
|Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage||47.3%||3rd|
|Opponent Turnover Percentage||15.5%||3rd|
|Opponent Offensive Rebounding Percentage||23.7%||18th|
|Opponent Free Throw Rate||0.175||6th|
The Hawks are rolling with Paul Millsap continuing to play like an All-Star, Dennis Schroder emerging as a perfectly serviceable floor general, and Mike Muscala coming out of nowhere as one of the most efficient players in the NBA -- but a large part of Atlanta's success so far in 2016-17 has been due to the resurgence of Dwight Howard.
After lackluster and injury-riddled stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, Howard has rediscovered himself in his hometown of Atlanta, averaging 14.8 points, 12.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.7 blocks in 28.3 minutes per game, while shooting 62.2% from the floor.
At almost 31 years of age, Howard's 28.3 minutes per game aren't quite in line with the 36.2 he played at as a younger man during his eight seasons as a member of the Orlando Magic (his definitive prime), but his per-36 averages and advanced metrics line up far more with his days in Florida than at any other destination over his 12-year career:
|Los Angeles Lakers||1||76||17.1||12.5||2.5||57.80%||19.4||105||100|
10 games is obviously a small sample size compared to his time served with his three previous teams, but it indicates a strong start to his Hawks career nonetheless (49.3% free throw mark notwithstanding).
Dwight has particularly rediscovered himself on the defensive side of things. Through the first few weeks of the season, he's among the league leaders in most defensive-based advanced statistics:
|Defensive Win Shares||0.8||9th|
|Defensive Box Plus/Minus||4.2||6th|
|Total Rebound Percentage||24.3%||2nd|
There's still a lot of season left to go before we see if Howard can stay healthy and keep contributing at such a high level, but it's interesting to see him potentially having a renaissance period after being such a punching bag for critics over the last few seasons, mostly for all of his off-court antics.
But winning tends to silence critics better than just about anything else. If Howard and his Hawks can keep up this pace of being statistically the best team in the Eastern Conference (with no disrespect to the champs), he could find his way back into Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year discussions before long.
For a player who has run into some form of turmoil at every previous stop in his NBA career, Dwight Howard is well on his way to showing why there's no place like home.