Howard: "I Want To Be The Best" For Atlanta

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Story by KL Chouinard
Twitter: @KLChouinard

The Hawks got tough around the rim in 2016-17, and they can thank Dwight Howard for that.

With Howard controlling the paint, the Hawks made the leap to 9th in the NBA in rebounds per game after being 24th a season earlier. At the same time, Atlanta crashed the glass without making any concessions on the defensive end: they led the Eastern Conference in defensive rating for the second consecutive season. 

Howard's individual achievements tell a bunch of the story. He finished with 12.7 rebounds per game, a mark good enough for 5th in the NBA. He ranked 2nd in the league in offensive rebounds per game (4.0) and 3rd in dunks (199). He also led the Hawks with 96 blocks.

And the 6-foot-11 center posted all of those impressive numbers despite a minutes load designed to keep his fresh and healthy in his 13th NBA season. Howard played a career-low 29.7 minutes per game while posting career highs in offensive rebounding rate (15.0 percent), total rebounding rate (23.5 percent), and field-goal percentage (63.3 percent).

The smart workload paid off. Howard said that he enjoyed relative good health while playing in 74 regular-season games.

"I felt amazing all year," he said. "I had a couple of games where guys fouled me and I had to sit out, but other than that I felt great. My body was never an issue with me all year: back, knees, none of that stuff bothered me."

Even though adding Howard to the roster last summer bolstered their inside presence, they also didn't abandon their pace-and-space approach from prior seasons. The Hawks kept the flexibility to play 5-out when Howard was off the floor with players like Mike Muscala and Ersan Ilyasova. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer was keen on using that approach to boost the offense in the instances where the Hawks fell behind early, as they did in Game 6 of their playoff series with Washington. 

Like any competitor would, Howard struggled to watch from the sideline as the season slipped away.

"I want to be the best for my team and this city," he said. "This is why I came here. It is upsetting to me, I want to get out there and play. (It's difficult) when you work hard for something and you watch it being taken from you (by Washington)."

Howard kept his plans for the summer simple.

"I'm just going to work on my game and get in the gym, and continue to do the stuff I do every day," he said. "I just want to get ready for next season, have a good summer and get my body right."

Howard also said that he expected to be involved with his teammates when they take to the court for some summer pickup games once they recover from the grind of an 82-game season that didn't turn out quite the way they had hoped.

"It was up and down, but I think what we do now is to take some time off and get away from the game, and come back and get ready for next year. "