Atlanta Hawks season preview

The NBA season will be here before you know it and FanSided is here to get you ready. In the lead up to Opening Night, we’ll be previewing two teams each day, reviewing roster changes, discussing important players and challenges, and hearing the perspective of our FanSided site experts. Let’s get ready for basketball!

Roster changes

Inputs: Taurean Prince (SF, NBA Draft pick No. 12); DeAndre Bembry (SG, NBA Draft pick No. 21); Dwight Howard (C, signed for three years, $70.5 million); Malcolm Delaney (PG, signed for two years, $2.5 million); Jarrett Jack (PG, signed for one year, veteran’s minimum);  Matt Costello (C, signed for two years, non-guaranteed)

Outputs: Jeff Teague (PG, traded to the Indiana Pacers); Al Horford (C, signed with the Boston Celtics); Kirk Hinrich (PG, unsigned); Lamar Patterson (SF, signed with the Sacramento Kings)

Retained: Kent Bazemore (SG, signed for four years, $70 million); Kris Humphries (PF, signed for one year, $4 million)

Most important addition

The Hawks lost two linchpins from their starting lineup over the summer in center Al Horford, who signed with the Celtics, and point guard Jeff Teague, who was traded to the Pacers in a deal that landed them 12th overall pick, Taurean Prince. Only Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver remain from the starting unit that won 60 games and sent four players to the All-Star game in 2014-15.

In comes Dwight Howard, who signed for three years at $70.5 million this offseason to return to his home city. You don’t have to be an NBA insider to know that Dwight is one of the most, if not the most, polarizing players in the league. He went from Mr. Popular during his Magic days to perennial team cancer during his one-year stint with the Lakers and three-year run with the Rockets.

Howard gets another fresh start though, and one that feels genuinely fresh heading back to the Eastern Conference he dominated for the first eight years of his career. The question is: What role will Howard play on a team that thrived on ball movement and great team defense last season?

Howard is still a dominant defender when he wants to be, but is joining a team that was second in defensive rating last year after the Spurs. Howard will be a better rebounder and presumably better rim defender than Horford, but will probably not be able to replicate the stellar pick-and-roll defense that both Horford and Millsap provided due to their versatile size and athletic ability.

The bigger question will be where Howard figures on offense. Again, he seems like an ill-fit on a team that specializes in perimeter shooting and pick-and-roll plays, but Howard can definitely impact the latter category. Despite the endless debate over whether he is a post scorer or a pick-and-roll scorer, Howard has the ability to roll hard to the basket and should be utilized heavily in such a role. He should not abandon his post-ups, but Dwight would be better utilized in a DeAndre Jordan-esque roll on offense. The question is whether he’s willing to make that sacrifice.

In fact, Howard’s second lowest usage rate (18.7) of his career last season is more in the range of a player like DJ (15.4 last season), and it should stay in that range. Howard had an encouraging performance against the Cavs this preseason and has plenty left in the tank despite claims of his demise. He can have a very productive season now removed from the Western Conference and could end up being somewhat of a bargain for the Hawks if he commits for three seasons.

Most important player

The best player on the Hawks is still Millsap, one of the best all-around players in the league and the embodiment of the Budenholzer-era Hawks version of San Antonio East. We know what we will get from Millsap, but have to wait-and-see what the dynamic will be with Howard over Horford. The player on Atlanta’s roster who will be most crucial to their 2016-17 is the one at the helm of it, a player who can take on a role unlike any member of the team-oriented Hawks of the past few years.

New starting point guard Dennis Schroder, just 23-years-old, is entering his fourth season in the league, but his ascension feels faster than what was expected. Coming over from Germany, Schroder had to deal with the stigma of a European point guard adapting to NBA-style basketball. The truth is, however, he plays more like an American floor general than one from overseas. While still a work-in-progress from beyond the arc, Schroder is an aggressive slasher to the basket.

Schroder averaged 6.8 drives to the hoop per game last season, good for 34th in the league. All the players ranked ahead of Schroder, however, averaged more minutes with the exception of Tony Wroten.  The majority played starters’ minutes well north of 30 per game, while Schroder averaged a modest 20.3 minutes per. All signs point to Schroder becoming even more aggressive this season and one of the league’s top slashing point guards.

Schroder also thrives in the screen game; last season, 54 percent of his possessions involved pick-and-rolls, the third highest mark in the league. His per-36 minutes stats from last season  — 19.6 points, 7.8 dimes, 1.6 steals — give an indication of his potential as a starter.

Number projections aside, it is Schroder’s fearlessness that can make him stand out. On a team that has struggled in the go-to-guy department, Schroder relishes the opportunity to take over in the fourth quarter of close games. If he can succeed in that role consistently this year, it’s possible the Hawks have unlocked a new element to their game that can lead to unanticipated postseason success.

What does success look like?

— Colby Giacubeno, @SoaringDwnSouth, Soaring Down South

The Atlanta Hawks are one of the more unpredictable teams heading into the 2016-17 season. Al Horford and Jeff Teague will be sporting new jerseys — Horford in Boston and Teague in Indiana. Since Horford arrived in Atlanta nine years ago, the Hawks have made the postseason every year. Although they never accomplished the ultimate goal of winning an NBA title, they have been continuously a respected opponent in the Eastern Conference.

Now, the team is taking on a new identity with a dominant big man who does his damage in the paint, Dwight Howard. Howard brings a different dimension to this team by providing elite shot-blocking and the ability to finish lobs off pick-and-rolls. Those attributes alone will help an already elite defense become even better, while forcing opposing defenses into tough decisions in help rotations.

Success for this team would be to finish in the top four of the East. Will it be a challenge? Definitely, but it certainly isn’t unobtainable. Mike Budenholzer is one of the smartest coaches in the NBA, so figuring out how to effectively utilize Howard within his system that has been famous for being a five-out motion offense shouldn’t be that big of an issue. The ultimate goal is to redeem themselves against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. They didn’t make these drastic offseason moves to maintain, they did it to have a better chance of capturing an NBA championship.