Dwight Howard: Looking way up

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty

Howard is in love with Houston. Now he just needs to put a ring on it.

Fair or not, Dwight Howard has never really been considered shrewd. Maybe it’s the occasionally misplaced smile (seriously, was missing another free throw that much fun for you?). Maybe it’s the thought of an adult in his mid-20s citing Finding Nemo as his favourite movie. Maybe it’s because of The Indecision, his year-long waffling about his future with the Orlando Magic that preceded him finally being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Or maybe it’s that when given the keys to the Lakers Kingdom—all he had to do was wait for Kobe Bryant’s eventual exit—he said thanks, but no thanks, and left $30 million on the table to leave Hollywood for Houston as a free agent.

But shrewd is as shrewd does. And once you look past the relative glamour and the wattage that comes with playing for the NBA’s premier franchise, it’s hard to argue that Howard made a poor decision about where to play the prime of his career. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, if you would’ve waited a couple years, then this could’ve been yours [with the Lakers],’ and I’m like, ‘In a couple years, I’m 30,’” Howard told USA Today’s Sam Amick at the start of training camp in Houston. “I don’t want to wait. I’ve been in the league 10 years. I don’t want to wait for things to happen. I want to be aggressive, to make things happen. And I’m looking at all these young guys who are just ready, and they’re missing one piece. And I’m like, ‘I could be that piece, and I don’t want to miss my chance.’”

For a second there it looked like that chance had arrived last season. The combination of the NBA’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year with incumbent superstar Bryant and fellow big Pau Gasol, who promised to provide the skill to complement Howard’s athleticism, all orchestrated by Steve Nash, seemed too perfect. In a pre-season poll of NBA general managers, 60 percent picked the Lakers as the likely Western Conference champions and 36 percent picked them to unseat the Miami Heat for an NBA title. The average number of victories ascribed to them by NBA writers and experts was about 60, and none other than Lakers teammate Metta World Peace pegged the Lakers to go 73-9, breaking the Chicago Bulls’ 1995–96 NBA record.

Of course, it all went completely wrong. Everyone got hurt, it seemed. Mike Brown got fired after five games, and in came Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo, perimeter-oriented attack. The sour stew—the Lakers went 45-37 and were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round—could claim a dozen clumsy chefs. But in the end it was Howard who seemed to bear the brunt of the blame even as Nash and Gasol each had—arguably—the worst seasons of their careers.

How bad did it end up in Laker-land? Well, by the time Howard decided to go to Houston, Bryant paid him the ultimate insult. He determined Howard was irrelevant. “Honestly, man, I really don’t give a s–t,” Bryant said on the first day of Lakers training camp. “It is what it is. If he came back, it would’ve been great. If he didn’t, he’s not. So it is what it is.”

And Bryant wasn’t the only Laker legend dismissive of Howard, who still managed to lead the NBA with 12.4 rebounds a game while finishing second in field-goal percentage (57.8) and fifth in blocks (2.45) in his first season after back surgery. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar more or less said Howard is incapable of being the focal point of a championship team, even though he did take the Magic, which relied heavily on players like Hedo Turkoglu and Rafer Alston, to the 2009 NBA Finals. “Dwight is an extraordinary athlete,” Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time NBA champion, said as training camps opened. “But basketball is a game in which the most important muscle is the one between your ears, [and] Dwight’s basketball IQ is not up to speed for him to be a dominant player. He needs to develop some skills at both ends of the court that would enable him to contribute to a winning effort, and hasn’t done that.”

For his part, Howard shrugged off the insult. “You can’t win three Defensive Player of the Year awards and be stupid,” he said. “People will have something to say… I’m in [Houston] now. This city has my back and we are going to ride together.”

Of course, winning will provide the ultimate rebuke. Howard believes his best chances will come with the Rockets, and the window is wide open. Instead of being paired up with Bryant, coming off a torn Achilles tendon at age 35, he’ll be running with James Harden, entering his prime at 24. Instead of hoping Steve Nash has any gas left as the NBA’s oldest player, he’s bet on the continued development of Jeremy Lin at point guard. Rather than having to share post-up opportunities with Gasol, Howard will have the block nearly all to himself.

How good can the Rockets be? Last season their pick-and-roll-heavy offence was the second-highest scoring outfit in the NBA, averaging 106 points a game. Harden was the maestro—according to advanced-stats expert Carl Fudge, he averaged a point per possession when he kept the ball after the pick was set, the fifth-best mark in the league. The problem was that when he gave it up, Omer Asik was a poor option, ranking 55th in the NBA as a pick-and-roll finisher. In contrast, Howard’s ability to catch the ball in traffic and finish above the rim on lobs has consistently made him one of the best roll men in basketball. Even last season, he was ninth in the NBA, averaging 1.74 points per possession and shooting 79.4 percent. The previous two seasons, Howard was second and first in the league, respectively.

Factor in the obvious benefits Howard should bring to a team that had a defensive rating just below league average and it seems inevitable that Houston will improve significantly on their 45-37 record from last season. Enough to be a championship contender in 2013–14? Howard believes it, and regardless, there’s time. “Other teams have more history, but yesterday’s scores don’t win today’s games,” Howard said. “You’ve got to look at the now. What can we do now? Nobody cared about what I did eight years ago, they want to know what I can do now, and it’s the perfect team for me.”

Sure, Los Angeles offered glamour, but in the NBA the glitziest thing of all is a championship ring. If that’s Howard’s goal, leaving the Lakers for Houston may be the smartest move of his career.

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