Twelve years after turning pro straight out of an Atlanta-area high school, Dwight Howard will return to his hometown and sign with the Hawks.
The Hawks have agreed to sign Howard, an unrestricted free agent, to a three-year, $71 million contract, according to Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com. The 30-year-old Howard averaged 13.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG and 1.6 BPG while earning $22.4 million for the Rockets last season. After Houston suffered through a lackluster season and a disappointing first-round exit, Howard turned down a $23.3 million player option to enter free agency. His new contract represents a modest per-year raise over his option number and is reportedly fully guaranteed with no options.
For Howard, this homecoming is the latest opportunity to reclaim a career that has largely failed to deliver on its early promise. With injuries complicating his stops with the Lakers and Rockets, Howard will return to the calmer waters of the Eastern Conference, where he stands a good chance of making his first All-Star team since 2014. In Atlanta, Howard will join a Hawks team that has made the playoffs for nine straight years and possesses a strong frontcourt anchor in Paul Millsap.
In light of the recent Jeff Teague trade and the uncertain future of free agents Al Horford and Kent Bazemore, Howard is joining a squad that could look very different from last season, when it won 48 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. If Horford re-signs, the Howard/Horford/Millsap frontline would instantly become one of the NBA’s biggest and most talented frontline trios. If Horford departs, Howard and Millsap would make for a natural inside/outside tandem. While Howard is five years removed from his peak production years in Orlando, he’s still a reliable double-double producer who should see his numbers bump up in Atlanta against the East’s weaker competition.
Ultimately, Howard’s success in Atlanta will come down to his ability to find an offensive role that’s large enough to keep him happy without being too big to cut into his team’s flow and efficiency. The Hawks have constructed an unselfish, pass-heavy attack in recent years, and Howard will need to fit into that framework without devolving too often into post-up opportunities that fail to produce points. The good news for Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is that Howard is coming off a season in which he attempted just 8.5 shots per game and took a major backseat to James Harden. Finding more touches and looks for Howard shouldn’t be all that difficult.
On the defensive end, Howard is still capable of being an impact-making backline presence, at least when he’s motivated and engaged. He made his presence felt throughout the 2014 and 2015 playoffs, helping Houston make a surprising trip to the Western Conference finals, and he’s still capable of overpowering smaller opponents on the glass and in the paint.
Although Howard missed half of the 2014–15 season with knee issues, he returned to play 71 games while playing 32-plus minutes per game last season. The Rockets battled chemistry issues all season long, the Harden/Howard pairing never meshed perfectly from a basketball or personality standpoint and a change of scenery was desperately needed. That new scenery just happens to be home.
Critics will point to Howard’s easygoing personality and injury concerns as red flags when it comes to assessing this deal. Those critiques have merit, but this was nevertheless a move worth pursuing for the Hawks, who scored a notable victory by keeping the term length to three years. That’s true whether Howard’s arrival coincides with Horford’s departure. If Horford does leaves, Howard helps keep the franchise afloat in the short-term and neatly fills what would have been a massive positional hole. If Horford stays, the Hawks will sport an overloaded frontline that should be capable of playing elite team defense while posing matchup problems for teams that want to go small. For a Hawks franchise that has been stuck in the “good but not great” category for years, taking a three-year chance on Howard doesn’t really feel all that risky.