Mentioning Dwight Howard's name nowadays prompts rolling eyes and hyperbolic laughter. Googling his name brings up a decade's worth of highlights featuring soul-crushing dunks and gifs of fellow NBA players hurling insults at him during games.
These sort of things are normal in sports. There are villains everywhere.
There are people who don't use their turn signal when changing lanes. Your coworker who eats rank tuna salad sandwiches at their desk. Tax collectors and meter maids. Joffrey from Game of Thrones. Ramsey from Game of Thrones. Little Finger from Game of Thrones (Westeros is a pretty twisted place).
And then you have Dwight Howard.
Dwight came into the NBA as an eighteen-year-old, straight out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. His signature smile, bound by braces at the time, would become vilified and scrutinized. Depending on winning and losing, it was seen as boastful or disingenuous. It was even mocked by an internet sensation NBA impersonator. It's worn on fans over the years and is part of what makes them weary. Many have wondered if he could return to being a cape-wearing hero.
Hawks fans have a lot of questions about their franchise signing the maligned center on a three-year, 70.5 million dollar contract. Will his ego be too big? Will he kill their beloved perimeter spacing? Will he give up when things get hard? Those questions certainly aren't lost on Howard.
"I think I'm in a really good place in life...I think from a mental and spiritual standpoint, I'm in a great place," Howard told Steve Smith while watching the Hawks play a summer league game in Las Vegas.
He's certainly been saying the right things. He made sure to mention his championship hopes. He claims to have only taken five days off this summer. He says he's more motivated than ever.
Reports suggest he's working with a shooting specialist who has already made serious tweaks to his shooting form. Previously, you could see a slight hitch in Howard's release. He also had a tendency to lean back too much while shooting.
These issues seem to have been addressed, judging from the videos on Dwight's Instagram. This youtube video by PressCAPLOCK has compiled Dwight's offseason work.
Practice does make perfect. Training helps a lot. However, there's no way to simulate the pressure of shooting free throws during a live game.
That's why Dwight admitted in a touching interview with ESPN's Jackie MacMullen that he's been seeing a sports psychologist. Improving his FT% and hitting a handful of elbow jumpers isn't what will help Atlanta's offense the most, though.
Last season, the Houston Rockets ranked second and third in 3 pointers attempted and made, respectively. The Hawks ranked seventh in attempts and sixth in makes. The Hawks converted 35% of their 3's. So did the Rockets.
On the surface these numbers make it clear that the Rockets shot a lot more long distance shots, meaning they must play at a much higher pace. Not so. The Rockets ranked seventh in pace, while the Hawks ranked at eighth. However, the Rockets had a top ten offensive rating, while the Hawks finished in the bottom third of the league. So while the two teams played at very similar pace, the Rockets were much more efficient.
We know that James Harden deserves a lot of credit for powering their offense, but it's certainly undeniable that having a legitimate rim-diving threat helps open up the perimeter for shooters. Common sense says that anytime a player is drawing lots of attention down low then the three point line is harder to guard. It's also possible that having five perimeter players actually hurt the Hawk's offense last season.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer seems to be excited to have a post presence.
"In a lot of ways, we've adjusted to who we've had in 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...someone who can put that kind of pressure on the rim."
Howard helps the Hawks specifically in one area: rebounding. He's a career double digit rebounder.
The Hawks were in the bottom third of the league in every quantifiable rebounding statistic last season. A fact that is astounding considering they manned one of the top five defenses in the league. A look around at the other top teams will reveal that they all have centers who are limited offensively, but do all of the dirty work down low. Tristan Thompson, Steven Adams, and Andrew Bogut all do what Dwight does, but Dwight does it much better.
Rebounding will always be a team effort, but his presence should take some pressure off Atlanta's wings, allowing them to contribute in other areas on the floor.
The Hawks introduced Howard at a press conference last month. Through tears, he again explained how he's in a much better place "physically, mentally, and spiritually." It was a genuine reaction from a young man who's been circled by media vultures for the past five years.
He's dealt with as many hacks off the court as he has on it.
Keeping with the theme, he announced a new jersey number, 8, which Biblically signifies new beginnings. The Dwightmare is finally over for him. Only time will tell whether or not Atlanta's fans will embrace him, but for now, he's happy to be honeymooning at home.