Dwight Howard searching for past form amid homecoming hoopla

ATLANTA — A small, black-and-white adidas advertisement faces the gymnasium at William Walker Recreation Center, held up by masking tape from the inside of an office littered with golden trophies. It’s from the apparel giant’s "Basketball Is A Brotherhood" campaign launched in 2007, featuring six NBA stars smiling at a camera in another gym at another location.

From left to right stands Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, Chauncey Billups and Tim Duncan — all but one now retired. On the far right stands the youngest of the group in a navy cutoff shirt with Duncan’s hand draped over his left shoulder.

Dwight Howard was 21 then, just scraping the surface of a career that would claim three consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, five All-NBA First Team nods, eight All-Star appearances and a near-surefire place in the Hall of Fame before his 30th birthday. The past four seasons in Los Angeles and Houston have blurred the image of the player Howard, now 30, was with the Orlando Magic — the game’s next great big man, following in the footsteps of Shaq, Duncan and Garnett.

The Hawks are betting $70 million that the image hasn’t faded for good.

Sitting in William Walker’s gym within eyesight of that old ad on Wednesday, Howard, whose father and cousin used to wake him up at 4 a.m. to train on the rec center’s track before a short drive to Southwest Atlanta Christian, focused on how the introduction served a dual purpose. It was to be both homecoming and renaissance.

"As a great man told me," Howard said, "’If you want to get back to the top, you’ve got to go back to your roots.’"

Three years ago, in Howard’s only other experience with free agency, such words carried little meaning. The 6-foot-11 skyscraper and the Hawks were in two different places. Former general manager Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer, who was entering his first NBA season as a head coach, met with Howard in L.A. and parted on good terms but with little interest. After three forgettable — and, at times, combustible — seasons with the Rockets, Howard is buying into the vision.

By the time Rogers and his client sat down to eat at Del Frisco’s Grille next door, the wheels were already set in motion.

"For this team to believe in me the way they do — they didn’t try to go after Kevin Durant. They didn’t want this player, they didn’t want that player. They didn’t care about none of the stuff that happened in my past," Howard said. "They were like, ‘This is the guy that we want.’

"That just made me say to myself, ‘Man, why would I miss out on this opportunity?’"

Betting on Howard at this juncture does not come without inherent risks. Aside from the three-year, $70.5 million contract, the signing predated the departure of Al Horford to Boston, another 30-year-old center whose game has aged far better. If Howard is unable to capture his old form, it’s a positional downgrade for a franchise that also traded starting point guard Jeff Teague this offseason and is entering Paul Millsap’s contract year. The return of Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr. and first-round draft picks Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry could give the team more wing depth, but there are question marks for last season’s No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Those questions start at the five.

Howard, who averaged 16 points and 11.7 rebounds during his three seasons in Houston, says he’s in a great place "physically, spiritually and mentally" following a reinvigorated offseason workout routine. He claims to have taken only five days off since the Rockets wrapped up their disappointing campaign.

"The season ended, the guys on TNT were joking about going to Mexico and going fishing. I actually did it. I went to Mexico. I went fishing," Howard said. "And after those couple of days I came back, got in the gym and been there ever since. The last couple of years have left a bad taste in my mouth, and I want to come back and dominate."

The weight of incorporating Howard — a very different offensive player than the efficient pick-and-pop option that Horford gave Atlanta — will fall onto Budenholzer’s shoulders.

While Howard compared the "pick-and-roll plus quality shooting" framework to his heyday in the Sunshine State, the 2015 NBA Coach of the Year harkened back to his days working with a traditional big as an assistant with San Antonio. (Remember that advertisement featuring Spurs legend Tim Duncan resting his hand on Howard’s shoulder?) Still, he doesn’t fit the typical pace-and-space mold and there’s bound to be a learning curve as the Hawks look to keep pace in the rising East.

"I think having a guy that can put pressure on the rim as a big — you know, the way we run motion, there’s still the four and five are interchangeable," Budenholzer said. "But it’s great to have somebody that’s going to roll and put pressure on the rim and have shooting around him. I think it’s going to work well.

"And in a lot of ways we’ve adjusted to who we’ve had the first three years and in some ways it’ll be going to back to what I know maybe even better and maybe even more comfortable with."

The concept of belief resurfaced multiple times throughout Howard’s comments on Wednesday — both internal and external. He shared a story of Bazemore, who re-signed with Atlanta to the tune of $70 million earlier this month, relaying how his new teammates trusted in him to regain his form, which prompted Howard to miss (by his calculation) only three shots at his workout that day. To hear him tell the story, Howard almost needed to re-convince himself of his own ability: "If I don’t believe it, I can’t expect anybody else to."

Such self-persuasion took more than a fishing trip to Mexico.

Howard wore the past few years on his sleeve, perhaps even more so than the emotion he showed upon seeing his family sitting in the front row at his de facto homecoming. He grew bitter. He withdrew. When talking with Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas during the offseason, Zeke’s message of finding a team with the "same spirit" spoke as much to Howard’s on-court production as his off-court fit personality-wise. So a tangible fresh start was, apparently, not complete without ample symbolism. Enter a new number.

The "D12" nickname is no more. Howard will shift to the No. 8 in his first season with Atlanta, a complete brand reboot.

"One of the things that the number meant Biblically was the purging of the heart. Throughout the years there was a lot of things that happened — behind closed doors with teams and stuff like that — that it really hardened my heart towards the game. … This summer I really had to purge my heart, you know, and come at basketball and life in a different manner. I was very upset with how things was turning out and what people were saying. It really just kinda, like I said, hardened my heart towards everybody.

"That’s not who I am. I don’t want to be that person."