There was a buzz in the Hawks’ locker room after their long-awaited first look at their new starting five together.
Clearly, Atlanta’s new big man has generated big expectations for the season.
The Hawks’ final home preseason game on Tuesday night provided the first chance for forward Paul Milsap, who has made three straight All-Star teams, to play beside center Dwight Howard, an eight-time All-Star and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Milsap was brought along slowly following a non-surgical procedure before training camp to reduce swelling in his right knee before making his first start in Atlanta’s 96-89 preseason win over New Orleans.
Seeing Howard and Milsap finally playing together boosted small forward Kent Bazemore’s enthusiasm for the season.
“The ball moves really well for us,” Bazemore said. “Paul and Dwight have really good chemistry and they’re going to be passing the ball a lot to each other … so they looked really good tonight.”
Howard signed a three-year, $70.5 million deal in July, giving Atlanta the legitimate center it lacked through much of the Al Horford era.
Horford, now with Boston, was a big reason the Hawks reeled off nine straight playoff seasons, but even he said he wasn’t a true NBA center. No one has ever said that about Howard, whose defensive rebounds and blocked shots have coach Mike Budenholzer thinking about fast-break opportunities.
Howard, entering his 13th NBA season, is still only 30. He sees his move to his hometown as a fresh start and an opportunity to repair his reputation following eight seasons with Orlando, one with the Lakers and the last three with Houston.
“I really want to show the Hawks fans how dedicated I am to winning,” Howard said. “I think a lot of people have probably got it twisted with the things that have happened in my past but I’m very dedicated to this sport, very dedicated to myself and winning and being whatever I can be for this team.”
Here are some other things to know about the Hawks:
NEW POINT: The other new piece in Atlanta’s lineup is point guard Dennis Schroder, who moves up after playing behind Jeff Teague for three years. Bazemore said Schroder, like Howard, boosts the Hawks’ defense. “Defensively he’s a stud and that’s where it starts,” Bazemore said. “We’ve got one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the league at point guard. It’s just a pleasure playing with him and the grit he brings every night. It’s huge for us.”
JACK NOT READY: Schroder’s backup to open the season will be rookie Malcolm Delaney, because veteran Jarrett Jack is still recovering from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right knee last season with the Nets. Delaney, from Virginia Tech, has played in Europe for five years. Budenholzer said Delaney “is not your typical rookie” and could be headed for more than a short-term role as Schroder’s backup. “I just feel very good about the way he has progressed and fit in with the group,” the coach said.
KORVER’S ROLE: Kyle Korver, 35, likely will open the season as the starting shooting guard, but for how long? The 3-point specialist saw his scoring average fall from 12.1 in 2014-15 to 9.2 last season. The Hawks could bring Korver off the bench if they opt for a bigger lineup with Bazemore at shooting guard and rookie Taurean Prince (6-8, 220) or Thabo Sefolosha (6-7, 220) at small forward.
FOR OPENERS: The Hawks open at home against Washington on Thursday. After trying a later 8 p.m. tipoff for most home games last season, most night games will start at 7:30 p.m. this season.
THE TRY FOR 10: The nine straight playoff seasons is the longest in franchise history and the longest active streak in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks set a franchise record with 60 wins in 2014-15, when they made their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. They fell back to 48 wins last season.