It’s fairly apparent to those who have watched NBA basketball and followed Dwight Howard since his time with the Orlando Magic, that the 6’11” center has declined since his time in the Sunshine state. It all began with Howard suffering lower back herniated discs, which kept him from playing in a putrid playoff series his final year with the Magic.
The writing had long been on the wall, though; and Howard was on his way out, after a year of the infamous period known as the “Dwightmare.”
Moving to the Los Angeles Lakers to play with Kobe Bryant was expected to alleviate these issues. Dwight would not be counted upon as much offensively, with what was expected to be a team boasting four future Hall of Famers (Dwight, Kobe, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol). Instead of accepting this reduced role as a chance to save his body, Howard sulked.
Kobe chided Dwight for being too jovial during games, too happy; and simply not competitive enough. Bryant has a cut-throat aggressive approach to the game of basketball, so Dwight’s passé attitude towards the game was bound to drive the Mamba crazy. And it did.
In all this chaos, came the decline of a player who was once unquestionably the best at his position (according to almost everyone except Shaquille O’Neal, who was bold enough to say Andrew Bynum was a better 5-man). Howard posted back-to-back 20-plus point per game seasons. He also had five consecutive seasons over 13 rebounds per game (three of which exceeded 14 per). With the Lakers, those numbers declined to 17.1 points per game and 12.4 rebounds per game (which still led the league).
The thought for Howard was that joining the Houston Rockets would increase his role within the offense. That barely happened. Howard saw only 0.6 shot attempts more per game playing with James Harden and the crew. Per-36, Howard averaged 2.4 points more per game than during his stint with the Lakers, but the role he once occupied in Stan Van Gundy’s inside-outside offense was all but gone. In fact, it really wasn’t until the end of the playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers that Kevin McHale even tried running the offense through No. 12.
But, for Howard to return to the level of play he once showed, it is imperative that McHale goes to a more inside-out attack. Given that the Houston Rockets once thrived with Hakeem Olajuwon functioning in such a role; and given Hakeem’s influence with the Rockets; it’s amazing this hasn’t happened already.
Simply, an offense which utilizes an interior and perimeter attack is more effective. The Orlando Magic employed an offense that sought to use Howard down low while stacking the perimeter with the likes of Hedo Turkoglu (later the less effective Vince Carter), Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis and Jason Richardson. Houston has a chance to do something similar with a team that features so many shooters. The percentage of said shooters would increase with more open looks.
It would require a natural period of adjustment. The Rockets would have to work on perimeter passing. And Dwight would naturally have to minimize his turnovers. He’s averaged over three turnovers per game in six of the past seven seasons. Maybe that kind of ball protection is impossible for Howard given his past track record.
But that can never be known without trying, and without further tutelage from the “Hoops Whisperer.” Howard has never averaged more than two assists a game to go with his bloated turnover numbers. Even so, it worked in Orlando. Shaquille O’Neal demonstrated a much better ability to pass out of double teams. But not every center can read a defense as naturally as Shaq, or Hakeem.
Ultimately, the Rockets must diversify the offensive sets to have a chance of upsetting the juggernauts in the Western Conference. The 4-2 loss to the Blazers illustrated the issues with a Harden-dependent offense. When Harden is off (or not getting calls he gets during the regular season), there has to be other ways to put the ball in the bucket. There simply weren’t.
It may be that Howard never returns to averaging 22 points and 14 rebounds per game. With the Magic, he set records for 20/20 games. Howard’s once pogo-stick-like legs just don’t seem to have that bounce anymore.
And yet, in this center-weak era, it is still possible for him to dominate. There’s no reason why less talented players like Joakim Noah should warrant more praise and clout than Howard. Sure, Noah is one of the best passing big men that the game has seen, but outside of that, he offers nothing Howard couldn’t best—at his best.
As for his best now, we just don’t know what that can or should be. But, to be sure, it’s going to require more touches and a bigger role within the offense. Whether McHale realizes it or not, it is the best hope for the Rockets making the next stride towards contention.