Will Dwight Howard actually improve Atlanta’s defense?

Southeast Division
(Brandt Sanderlin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Now that the Atlanta Hawks have swapped out players in the starting center spot, the question for many will be whether it’s a positive swap or not. Tiago Splitter, Hawks big man, thinks this will turn out to be a great move in terms of defense.

Via AJC.com:

“(Howard) is a little bit more of a defensive player than Al, more rebounds, more physical presence on the court,” Splitter said. “That is going to change our team. … Dennis, he is also a great defender. He’s a better defender than Jeff. He will pressure the point guard the whole court. He is growing up and getting more solid.”

As Splitter said, Dwight Howard is known for his intimidating presence in the paint, and he’s obviously the better rim protector over Al Horford. However, this isn’t the same Dwight Howard that everyone loved in Orlando. Today’s Howard has fallen victim to the injury bug many times, and that has limited him in the mobility department. Sure he does get some more rebounds and blocks, but his help defense and versatility is not what it used to be.

Al Horford, on the other hand, excelled at help defense and he was able to defend a multitude of positions. As the anchor, he always seemed to know when and where to switch, which allowed the defense to move fluidly behind him. Also, something worth mentioning is that the Hawks were ranked second in the league in defense last season behind the San Antonio Spurs. Seeing as the Spurs were near a historic level in terms of defensive rating, being better than they were last season will prove to be difficult.

Last year, Howard turned in a defensive rating of 104 which is tied for his worst single season total of his career. Meanwhile, Horford posted a 101 defensive rating which was the second best of his career. Horford even had a greater defensive box plus minus than Howard this past season by almost a full point, and their total box plus/minus is in favor of Horford by almost four points.

If I had to put their styles of defense into one summary, Horford is more of a system defensive player, while Howard is more of a one-man defensive force. On a team like the Atlanta Hawks, a system player seems to be more of a fit because of their Spurs-like system that Mike Budenholzer brought over. The determining factor that will tell us if Dwight Howard can really improve the defense is if he can mold his defensive talents to fit the system. The Hawks don’t need an aging lone wolf on their defense, they need an experienced force who can lead the system.

Houston was a volatile environment, but now Howard is going to a place with an established system and a great coach. If he keeps playing the way he has been in recent seasons, and keeps a lone wolf superstar kind of mindset, then improving the Hawks defense is not going to happen. A mindset and play style change this late in the game isn’t easy, but if his training videos are any indication, then Hawks fans could be in for a treat with a newly re-focused Howard on their squad.


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