Superman Returns? Unlikely, but Exciting to Consider

They’ve turned one of the last pages on a long chapter in the storied franchise. Long-time talents are out and a seven-foot experiment with injury questions is in. And no, I’m not doing a recap of the Philadelphia 76ers once-promising 2012 offseason. In fact, it’s the other pillar of the Magic-Sixers-Lakers megadeal that the Hawks have ushered into Atlanta.

Dwight Howard, unquestionably the best center in the league just three measly years ago is the new big man on the block in Georgia. But, now he finds himself at a crossroads in his career. Once famous for Superman-like stature and for being a force in the paint, a Kobe conflict, an injury bug, and a falling out in Houston have de-railed Dwight’s career.

According to ESPN, Howard went in to Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey’s office to discuss his “reduced role” and said, ‘I want to be more involved.’ Daryl said, ‘No, we don’t want you to be.’ My response was, ‘Why not? Why am I here?’ Howard claims he came out a changed man, ready to recoup the reputation that had made him a household name and his teams instant contenders.

Unfortunately, Dwight has big shoes to fill. Size 17 to be exact. Those of perennial All-Star, Al Horford. Consistently rostered on the All-NBA under-rated team as well, Horford did a lot of things that coaches love in today’s NBA. He passed the ball well, stretched the floor with a nice mid to long-range jumper, and makes his free throws. However, Dwight’s predecessor also didn’t quite fit the bill for several skills the Hawks were lacking. Despite playing next to a defensive stalwart like Paul Millsap, Horford had difficulty rebounding the ball and sometimes struggled to protect the rim.

According to CBS Sports, “The Atlanta Hawks had the second-best defense in the NBA last season and gave up just 98.2 points per 100 possessions with Al Horford on the floor. He and Paul Millsap defended about the same number of shots at the rim, and Horford was mostly fine at it.” Mostly fine. Not at all the words you want to hear describing your starting center’s rim protection. Especially on a team second in the league in defense. If they were already this good prior to gaining Howard’s potentially elite defensive talent, this is a window Dwight has to differentiate himself in. And it could be where the Hawks establish a true playoff identity. Over the course of each players playoff careers, Howard outrebounded Horford 14.1 to 8.4 and outscored him by a whopping six points. Horford also struggled to score in bunches, a talent teams need from their studs in March and April. His all-around skill hid the fact that he couldn’t shoulder the load late in the fourth quarter, boasting a playoff best in 2013 of 16.7 points per game. This pales in comparison to Howard’s high of 27 points per game, especially considering Howards averages have taken a serious hit during the Rockets last three runs in the significantly more difficult Western Conference.

Does that mean the Hawks are better off without their old big man? Hell no. Or at least not yet. Despite the fact that Horford couldn’t put up the numbers to better establish a superstar brand/image, he did A LOT of things that players 6-10+ would kill to do. And the Celtics should be commended for hitching their wagon to that of a non-traditional superstar. With that said, Dwight has just the skillset that the Hawks need, sporting ridiculous averages of 13 win shares (7 Defensive Win Shares) in the five years he played over 76 games in the past decade. During that time Dwight also averaged 13.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game. His defensive presence very clearly correlates with his health.

Over the same time period, Horford contributed 8.5 win shares, 9.5 rebounds and one block per game to his team, if anything numbers a bit high compared to his career averages. Provided Howard is healthy and starts to capitalize on his gifts again, Atlanta may yet be calling the hometown hero an upgrade by Christmas.

Unfortunately, the former superstar bears more than just the pressure to play well himself. Howard also needs to establish chemistry with his teammate, Paul Millsap. This should((n’t have to)) be of concern to Dwight, a player that has been labeled, (fairly or not) “Does not play well with others.” All the same, the Hawks have put him in the difficult position of playing next to a frontcourt player who was on the trade block this summer and is up for free agency next Spring. Either issue alone wouldn’t be easy. Both means Howard has to do something that he’s never been capable of to date: playing next to another All-Star.

In ways, Howard and Millsap make a fine frontcourt fit that most NBA teams can only dream about. The two bigs pair range with power moves in the paint, defensive versatility with dominant rim protection, smooth passing, and total control over the boards. This tandem could theoretically contend for best front-court in the association.

Unfortunately, it’s been a few years since Howard dawned the red cape, and he’ll be hard-pressed to handle the pressure while staying on the court (just 62 games/year since his last season in Orlando). The DC hero’s red boots may be too big to fill, yet Atlanta needs the former man of steel to put in the work on and off the court if they’re to keep their playoff streak intact. Luckily for them, with a brand on the brink, Dwight may have the incentives to play through his kryptonite.

Also lucky for the Hawks, between DeMarre Carrol, Millsap, and Kent Bazemore, they regularly mine diamonds in the rough. All happen to play the most important positions in today’s NBA. And they just happen to have added Taurean Prince, a prospect more than a few writers had going earlier on draft day. Along with the talented Baylor wing, Atlanta picked DeAndre’ Bembry from Saint Joes, a player labeled the steal of the draft after a stunning Summer League performance.

Did I say luck? I meant skill. Pure unadulterated talent. This team is the best in the association at developing young versatile wings. The importance of these players can’t be understated. Their ability to shoot from the perimeter, combined with seamless defensive rotations onto 2s, 3s, and 4s can’t be quantified. The fact that they got two in this draft speaks to my confidence in the long-term health of this franchise.

This continuity at the position serves as the number one reason this team has stayed atop the East as long as it has. That said, both Bembry and Prince are just entering their first year. Despite promising per 36s, Bazemore has yet to play a bigger role. Therefore, for the first time in years the Hawks could face a brief respite from filling the 3/4 so easily next year. This short gap in their talent pipeline is entirely dependent on Millsap’s decision next offseason, coming back to “the Dwight question.” Can he shoulder a role big enough to make this question irrelevant? Or can he provide a fit that Millsap will love to play next to going into the future? In the case that he does, Prince and Bembry suddenly seem like some very potent ammunition that makes Atlanta the first true contender in seven years to Lebron’s dominance in the East.

Either way, a large weight will fall on Jeff Teague’s successor. To quote Jason Statham from one of my all-time favorites, Snatch, “Ze’ German is coming.” Dennis Schröder. The man. The myth. The legend. He’s got an aggressive drive, a sick haircut, and he is taking over as floor general of a top-eight team. Of all the uncertainties, Schröder is the most likely to live up to expectations or serve as an upgrade at his position. With playoff outings where he drained five threes and dropped 27 points on Lebron’s Cavs, he’s ready to take the mantle. That said, he’s also playing the deepest position in the NBA and will find it that much harder to differentiate himself from the crowd. As a Sixers fan, I held out hope for months that he would be coming to Philadelphia this offseason after trade rumors had circulated. To my dismay, the Hawks were smart enough to move on from the Teague era, and should be hopeful that Schröder breaks into the top-10 tier of floor generals sooner than expected.

The next two years brings high upside along with several big uncertainties. The best-case scenario for this team is taking the Cavs to six games in the ECF with a dominant defense and challenging for the finals after a trade or another big splash next summer. In the worst-case scenario, the next two seasons provide a maturation period in which hopefully one of Dennis Schröder or Kent Bazemore turns into an All-Star, leading the Hawks into 2018 (and beyond). If Millsap jets next offseason though, a total rebuild could be imminent, and everything becomes uncertain.

In an Eastern conference crowded with mediocrity, I like Atlanta’s decision to roll the dice on a back-to-back-to-back DPOY like Howard while banking on their core competency of wing development to keep them flying in the future.

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