Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What To Do With Dwight Howard?

Ah Dwight Howard...man what an intriguing subject to write about. Before I get into what I think he should do with his impending free agency, I have to delve into the saga that has become his career. For me it starts in 2009. That was the year he took the Magic to the NBA Finals losing in 5 games to the Los Angeles Lakers. Along the way he lead them over a LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers squad in what would be his one & only trip there.

Now the reason I say it started then is because, I have always said that he needs to get serious & focus on his job more. Much like LeBron James he had so much success & accolades so early in his career, I believe it altered his perception of his self worth on the basketball court. Around that time in his career he started questioning his head coach Stan Van Gundy in the media. That started what has turned out to be one of the oddest player/coach relationships I've ever seen. He also had a penchant for making a spectacle of himself with all his pre-game antics. It seemed as though he was hellbent on making a name for himself as a fun loving guy.

Far be it for me to tell Howard how to live his life on the court but I can say with absolute certainty that his happy-go-lucky style has yet to win a title in this NBA. In other words, it's time for Howard to grow up. LeBron went through a similar metamorphosis & came out on top, well Howard needs to see his example & learn from it. You would think playing with Kobe Bryant would've taught Howard some lessons in focus & determination but if how his season ended is any indication, getting thrown out with about 9 minutes left in the 3rd quarter of Game 4, he hasn't learned a thing.

A few years back, Howard followed in the footsteps of Bryant & went to spend some time with Hakeem Olajuwon learning some of his famous Dream Shake moves. It seemed to help as he went on to have one of his most productive years but he still has yet to develop a true signature low post move. It's amazing how many big men these days haven't developed any real low post moves. Shaquille O'Neal is the greatest example of a dominant player never developing a go-to move but still remaining dominant. Shaq spent his best years just overpowering opponents but when his foot speed left him he had no signature move to fall back on. A successful go-to low post move for a big man can be the difference between a great 10 years & a consistently great 13-15 years. When some of your natural skills erode you need a move that requires as much guile as it does skill. Howard still doesn't have that & Shaq never really did.

This past season we saw what can happen to Howard when his dominant athletic skills aren't there. He had his lowest scoring average since his 3rd year in the league while his blocks & rebounds remained close to the same but he just didn't have his usual explosiveness. It would be in his best interest to return to Olajuwon's & continue working on his low post game. Even Shaq, while never having a true go-to move, had soft hands & a soft touch. Howard on the other hand does not. He has little to no touch around the rim & is the reason why at times while in Orlando, Van Gundy wouldn't run the offense through him at crunch time. Add to the fact that he is a horrible foul shooter & it was actually a sensible move not going to him down there.

If he is able to regain most if not all of his explosiveness next year, & as I said, is able to continue to grow his low post game, he should return to his previous dominant self. But the thing is, for a guy like Howard, with all of his sideshow antics, is his best great enough to warrant building your entire franchise around him? That remains to be seen but a lot may be determined by where he ultimately chooses to play.

If he were to stay in LA he'd probably get a chance to start the season as the main guy with Kobe coming off of his Achilles injury. With Mike D'Antoni at the helm, Pau Gasol doesn't seem to be a real threat to the amount of shots Howard should get. If Kobe isn't around for the start of the season, look for D'Antoni to feature Howard in a lot more pick-&-roll situations with Steve Nash & whoever else the Lakers bring in to run the point. There aren't any young studs on the roster that Howard can look to as a definite part of the future there so he would have to trust that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is able to build around him while they remain contenders. One thing his back injury should have done is heightened his sense of urgency to win now though.

There will be a number of teams making serious attempts to bring him in including the Dallas Mavericks & Atlanta Hawks. The problem with both teams is, both of their rosters are pretty thin so whatever success they're going to have, will have to come off of future moves, not necessarily based on their current rosters. The Hawks are in somewhat better shape even though one of their best players is a free agent in Josh Smith. Supposedly, him & Howard are good friends who would like to play together but if you buy into those stories, then Howard must feel that way about almost every great player in the league because every few months a story comes out that there's another great player that he'd enjoy playing with. The Mavericks roster is is so devoid of talent after Dirk Nowitzki that I'm certain they'd have to bring him in as part of a package of free agents, maybe even his buddy Smith. Both teams were banking on Chris Paul being available but with Doc Rivers signing on to coach the LA Clippers, chances are pretty slim that Paul is going anywhere. The Hawks though at least have a younger veteran roster led by Al Horton.

The team that may have the most realistic shot at luring Howard away from the Lakers is the Houston Rockets. One thing the Lakers have over almost every other team is their history & especially their history of all-time great centers. From George Mikan to Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar right up through to Shaqullie O'Neal. They have perhaps the greatest legacy of centers in NBA history. The one team who can compete somewhat with that legacy though, is the Rockets. It started with Elvin Hayes then Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon & more recently Yao Ming. Stacked up next to the Lakers it pales in comparison, but stacked up next to nearly every other team in the league its extremely impressive.

The Rockets possess a few attributes that those other franchises can't really compare to. First off they too have a championship legacy built around the best player in franchise history, Olajuwon with back-to-back championships in 1994 & '95. Back in the 80s even when the Lakers & Celtics seemed to take turns winning titles, the Rockets, along with the Philadelphia 76ers were one of the few teams that actually went to the NBA Finals. Also, they have an owner who has shown over the last few years that he is not afraid to spend to field a championship contender.

The biggest asset that the Rockets possess & not even the Lakers can match, is young stud James Harden. With Harden you're talking about a guy who, if he continues on his upward tick, will be a top 5 player in the league perhaps as soon as next season. Added to that mix is a bunch of young talented players like Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Terence Jones & Omer Asik. If they brought in Howard, Asik would immediately become the best backup center in the NBA.

Now you'll notice I didn't mention the Brooklyn Nets as a legitimate landing spot because I would think that they have had their fill when it comes to Howard's petulant behavior. He could've been a Net a couple of years ago if he had played his cards right. Now, with the development of Brook Lopez you would think that they'd stand pat in the middle & focus on the backcourt of Deron Williams & Joe Johnson, especially after the Jason Kidd hiring. The one caveat to all of that however is Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. He seems to like making a big splash so if the Nets were to make a run at Howard, he'd be the one to initiate it.  

The Rockets meanwhile have the makings for a championship contender if they can bring in a healthy Dwight Howard. They have Olajuwon & Yao Ming who supposedly played a big role in them landing Jeremy Lin, to help in the recruitment & let's not forget their head coach was one of the best low post players in the history of the NBA in Kevin McHale. So you have a good young nucleus led by a possible top 5 player, an owner who has shown a recent history to spend, a city who has always represented well for their franchise & a head coach who has an NBA resume that most would kill for. As presently constructed the Rockets look to be a strong team in the Western Conference so if they were to bring in Howard, while keeping the rest of the roster in tact, that would easily make them one of the top teams & my choice if I was Dwight Howard.