It seems as if we’ve been talking about the Atlanta Hawks pursuing Dwight Howard since he was a senior at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, but Monday marked the first day the team could state its desires so openly. (Without being fined for tampering, LOL.) The Hawks met with Howard in Los Angeles even as Yahoo! Sports was reporting that Houston, granted an earlier audience, had become the front-runner for his services.
Because he’s from here and, having worked eight seasons for the Orlando Magic, has played against the Hawks so often, we Atlantans have reason to feel we know him rather well. Question is, do we know him too well? Have his excesses come to override, at least in some of our minds, his strengths?
Why the fuss over someone with so much baggage? Because he’s a true center. How many true centers are there? How many of those are any good? Five, maybe? If you have the best player at one of basketball’s two most important positions — point guard being the other — you have a foundation. There’s a chance that a pairing of Howard and Al Horford would work nicely. (Remember, the lack of size remains an issue for the Miami Heat.) On the other hand, a front line of Howard, Horford and Josh Smith probably wouldn’t work at all.
But is the most talented center in the world as good as he should be? Actually, no. Heading into his 10th NBA season, Howard remains a rudimentary offensive presence. He has no staple move — no Sky Hook, no Dream Shake — beyond the dunk. Even with the Magic arraying 3-point shooters around him, he has never averaged two assists a game in any season. Granted, he’s a great rebounder and an imposing defender. Even as we concede that Howard is the best the NBA has to offer, we note that he’s not nearly the player Shaquille O’Neal was.
Is he a winner? The Magic wouldn’t have reached the 2009 NBA finals without Howard as counterweight to that 3-point shooting. But, because he doesn’t do much beyond dunk and because he’s a lousy free-throw shooter, he’s not apt to score 40 points and beat you by himself. Rather than double-teaming him at every turn, opponents began throwing one big body against him and staying home against those shooters. In the 2010 playoffs, Hawks coach Mike Woodson insisted on swarming Howard and saw his team swept by an aggregate 101 points. The next postseason, with Larry Drew deploying Jason Collins to great advantage, the Hawks beat Orlando in six games.
Is he a whiner? Oh, yes. He has been called for 60 technical fouls over the past five seasons. He was ejected from what might have been his last game as a Laker. Famous for his smile, Howard is nonetheless easy to rattle. Again we cite Jason Collins, who couldn’t really play but was able and willing to get in Howard’s way.
Is he a coach-killer? The lingering memory of Howard in Orlando isn’t of his dunks or his excellence during that 2009 run but of him throwing his arm around Stan Van Gundy in view of reporters just after the coach had informed those reporters that Howard was lobbying to get him fired. In that moment, Howard stopped being seen as an amiable giant and was recast as something of a phony. His first season in L.A. ended with reports that he was displeased over how he’d been used by Mike D’Antoni, who prefers to run rather than to grind it out. (In Howard’s defense, D’Antoni really isn’t the coach for him.)
For all the negatives expressed above, should the Hawks still be interested? Yes, for the fundamental reason that Howard is both a center and a star. There was a time when he was one of the league’s five best players. At 27, he could easily become that again.
To win an NBA title requires star power. Stars are landed via the luck of the lottery or snagged when they become free agents. The Hawks haven’t been that lucky or that clever — recalling Marvin Williams vis-à-vis Chris Paul — in the lottery. This, then, is their chance.
Would I prefer Paul to Howard today? Yes, but the point (pun intended) is moot. Placated by the arrival of Doc Rivers as coach, Paul is staying with the Clippers. Howard is the best free agent who’s apt to move. The Hawks have the money to accommodate him and another free agent of consequence. Would that build a championship team? Maybe not in one swoop, but it’d be a flying start.
For all my reservations about Dwight Howard, the cold reality is that he’s the one available guy who could make this franchise viable overnight. Ergo, he’s worth any risk.