How the Hawks offense will be different with Howard

The Hawks offense is going to be different this season.

It has to be.

In the first three seasons under coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks’ ball-movement offense worked with Al Horford in the middle. The center stretched the floor by eventually extending his range out to the 3-point line and pulling the opposition’s big man away from the basket. Now comes change. Dwight Howard joined the Hawks as a free agent and Horford left for the Celtics this summer. Howard is a traditional center who will play in and out of the post.

Will the Hawks offense be better? That remains to be seen. However, there is no question it will be different.

Through interviews with several sources throughout the NBA, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes an in-depth look at the plan for the Hawks offensive attack with Howard at center.

Rim runner-Rim trailer

Hawks coaches have longed to employ a rim runner-rim trailer strategy with some regularity. However, the strategy was limited by the strengths of the personnel. The thought was that Tiago Splitter, a traditional center, could help but his first season with the Hawks were marred by injury.

The concept revolves around the big men on the floor. The rim runner is the big who did not get the rebound and races down the floor to put immediate pressure on the rim. The rim trailer is the big who controls the rebound and gets up floor to be in position to play off the pick-and-roll. Ideally, Paul Millsap would be the rim runner and Howard would be the rim trailer. The concept certainly works the other way around if Millsap secures a rebound. If the rim runner doesn’t get to the rim, then a player like Millsap can stretch the floor with the threat of his outside shot.

Previously, the Hawks ran either pick-and-rolls or, more often than not, pick-and-pops with Horford at center. With Howard, the Hawks will run a lot more dive pick-and-rolls with the big man rolling to the rim or drag plays along the sideline. Howard could play above the rim on a lob or go back door of the pick (think Princeton offense).

When a defender runs into the pick-and-roll, the ball-handler comes off, turns the corner and can look to Howard for the lob at the rim. The belief is that this action will be hard to stop without the defense overcommitting to Howard on the dive. The defense can’t “half-it” as they may have in the past. Commit or Howard dunks.

If the defense offers weak-side help to take away at the rim, Howard becomea a passer. The corner 3-pointer or weak-side wing 3-pointer will be open with a defense scrambling to recover from Howard in the paint all the way to the 3-point line.

With a scrambling defense, the 3-pointer will be open or the new ball-handler can drive past the recovering player and/or pass for an even more wide-open shot.

“It’s great to have somebody who is going to roll and put pressure on the rim and have shooting around him,” Budenholzer said at the signing of Howard. “I think it’s going to work well. In a lot of ways, we’ve adjusted to who we’ve had the first three years and in some ways, it will be going back to what I know maybe even better and maybe even more comfortable with having someone who can put that kind of pressure on the rim.”

The NBA has become a 3-point league but defenses still must respect a player like Howard and his skills with the ball at the charge circle.

Defenses can’t half-it

Let’s further examine the notion that defenses can no longer “half-it” against the Hawks offense. With Jeff Teague or Dennis Schroder running the point, both with the ability to break down a defense and get to the basket, defenses could count on Horford’s tendency not to be an inside player. Horford would pop off the pick for a mid-range jump shot. Horford has one of the best mid-range shot for a big man in the NBA and it became a potent weapon for the Hawks. While Howard doesn’t possess that level of mid-range game, he is a threat inside and can get over the rim with much more frequency. Teams could half-it defensively – that is used their length and athleticism from the weak side to slow Horford for a step and recover. Horford could be slowed at times by a quick step or hand swipe. The belief is that a defense did not have to fully commit. That, the Hawks hope, is the difference. With Horford, the defense could halfway commit and still stay matched up on the 3-point line. With Howard, they can’t halfway commit because he will get too deep of a position to post up or finish above the rim.

Simply, the belief is that defenses must make a decision – do they want to give Howard an easy shot at the rim or do they want to give up an open shot trying to run a shooter off the 3-point line.

“They have to collapse the zone,” Splitter said recently. “You can’t guard Dwight with just one guy. He’s solid in the post and he’s big. You have to help.”

More open 3-pointers

The Hawks offense is based on ball-movement, pick-and-rolls and 3-point shots. The belief is that the more of a rim threat in the pick-and-roll game, the better the 3-point shots will be available.

Three-point shots come in three ways: an isolation play one-on-one, dribble penetration and a kick out or a pass out of a double team in the post to the weak side. The latter is the key with Howard now in the offense.

The NBA game is changing and more teams want a center who can step away from the basket. It’s one of the reasons Horford was so coveted during free agency. Not many teams have a center who can still command a double team. The Hawks believe Howard is one of the few. If Howard can be an effective passer out of the double team, there will be open 3-point shots. The concept is predicated on collapsing a defense from the post when a drive-and-kick or skip-pass will lead to the open long-distance shot.

Last season the Hawks were sixth in the NBA in 3-point shot makes (9.9), seventh in attempts (28.4) and 15th in percentage (35.0). In their 60-win season of 2014-15, they were fifth in 3-point makes (10.0), seventh in attempts (26.2) and second in percentage (38.0). Efficiency from the 3-point line will be major key to the Hawks offensive success.

A defender a step or two away from a shooter is going to make a close-out more difficult. A player like Kyle Korver figures to get more open looks as defenses cannot fully commit to stopping him as they have in the past. Maybe instead of a hand in the paint, defenses will need two feet in the paint. Just that little bit of open space on the weakside will lead to better, more effective attempts.

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