Congratulations Rocket fans, you’ve got your blue chip center – Dwight Howard. Before you take him for a test drive and start pinning your title hopes on D12 let’s engage in some real talk. This may turn out peaches and cream and Houston could add a few banners to the Toyota Center’s rafters. Dwight is still young and talented so it’s not outside the realm to think that he might add that missing ingredient to James Harden’s contributions and the Rockets could roll through the Heat and pick up the hardware. He’s too valuable a commodity to pass by. He could be a once in a generation center.
Or maybe not.
Let’s talk about full disclosure. What if, and I’m just saying IF, Dwight Howard doesn’t pan out. If, like say last year, all these glowing projections turn into an overpriced, overhyped bad teammate with diminishing skills. Just saying.
Let’s inspect D12 the same way someone comes to the house you’re wanting to buy and tells you that the crack in the sheet rock is cause for concern and there’s hidden water damage behind the base boards. Let’s see what your getting Houston.
Dwight is NBA Old.
Dwight turns 28 in December of this year. That’s prime age for most conventional NBA players. LeBron is 28. He just planted his flag in Michael Jordan’s greatest ever legacy. Howard turns 28 and sits in his tenth year in the league. That’s ten years of banging in the paint, including several long playoff runs. This is what we know; big men tend to decline at a faster rate then wings or guards. Worse, Dwight has peeked. Or perhaps a better way of saying it, if he peeks in the next 2-3 years that progress will be an outlier historically among great NBA centers. Hakeem peeked the latest in his career, about year nine. But does anyone see any similarity between Dream and Dwight other than height? More probable is that we’ve seen a peaked out Dwight in 2011 when he averaged 20 and 14. Granted, last year he still averaged 17 and 13 and led the league in rebounds per game but red flags flew around his play. He wasn’t the same player. His win shares, the estimate of number of wins attributed to a player has plummeted from 14.4 in 2010-2011 to 7.6 in 2012-2013. This is not unusual; it’s what aging big men do. This could be a bump in the road. I mean Dwight played for Mike D’Antoni, a coach who wouldn’t have known what to do with Bill Russell in his starting lineup. Or it could be an indicator that Dwight’s value could go downhill quickly.
Dwight’s athletic advantages are fading fast.
Athletic NBA players have to develop skills outside of flying around to survive long term in the NBA. LeBron has mastered a mid-range game and is constantly tweaking his low post arsenal. Adapt or die. That’s the mantra. The league and father time will figure you out and shut you down otherwise. How is Dwight’s low post game? How have his moves developed? Is there a consistent baby hook, jump hook, fade away, up and under? Can he Dream shake? How about that 12-14 foot jumper? Can he get points at the line? Not saying he’s void of any of these things, but what indicates that in his tenth year in the league that he’s trending upwards on these offensive indicators? As he ages he will need to rely on things players like Hakeem, Duncan, Jabbar and others relied on: A consistent, diversified post game. That type of post game requires hard work and dedication. Otherwise D12 is forced to “out-athlete” younger, more athletic big men. Dream could step out along the baseline and drill the 8-10 footer, forcing defenses to stay honest. Duncan works the glass and has extended his range as well as any modern big. Jabbar had an unstoppable shot that he could deploy from either block, with either had. Where will Dwight’s points come from as his body continues to deteriorate?
Dwight can’t play in the last 5 minutes.
Oklahoma City famously employed the “hack Asik” strategy last may in the playoffs. Asik was a 55% foul shooter. The strategy backfired to a degree, the Thunder won the series but Asik won our hearts. What’s to stop opponents from employing similar tactics against Dwight, a statistically worse foul shooter? Free throws are so named because you are UNGUARDED at the line. Free throws are a discipline. They take time, practice and routine but a bad free throw shooter can become average or decent. League average for a big man is 67%, while league wide free throws are hit about 75% of the time. Dwight knocked down 49% of his free throws. So if you fouled him, on average, there was a better chance at him missing an uncontested shot then making it. Can you play Dwight Howard in crunch time?
Dwight has been cut on.
Whether Dwight quit on the Magic in 2012, his back was an issue so he had it repaired. Backs are funny things because they tend to get worse not better. Ask Larry Bird. Factor in the pounding Dwight has taken and will continue to take and his health is a legitimate concern. Last season with the Lakers he continued his downward statistical trend. Dwight said this was due in part to his recovery from injury. Fair enough but what if this is the new reality of Dwight? What if the superb physical specimen that is Dwight is starting to/continuing to break down? It’s worth noting that Howard had been remarkably healthy until 2011-2012. He missed 24 games that season with various issues, last year he bounced back to miss just six, but he didn’t seem like the same player, physically or statistically.
Let’s get real subjective; Dwight Howard quit on the Magic. He threw his coach under the bus, got real cliquey with a few teammates and tried to engineer a way out of the Magic Kingdom. But not just that, Dwight quit on the Lakers last year. Kobe was gone with an Achilles injury and a lot of pundits thought the Lakers might be better with Dwight and Pau as the focal points of the offense. Then came his epic playoff meltdown that included loafing, mental errors, technicals, an ejection, and watching 37 year-old Tim Duncan repeatedly beat him down the floor for what looked like lay-up drills. Once you’re a quitter it’s hard to stop quitting. At the very least once there’s a perception that you quit, that perception is hard to overcome.
Dwight lacks maturity.
This one could have couched all of the above to be honest. If Dwight were more mature he would have worked to shore up his low post game, free throw ability, and he wouldn’t have quit on Orlando and L.A. Insiders will point to his stint with USA Basketball as exhibit A on his lack of maturity. He
annoyed teammates and coaches in 2008 with his attitude including future teammate and psychopath Kobe Bryant. Then Pau and Marc Gasol took him to the woodshed in the gold medal game. Back surgery cost him a shot at the 2012 London games but few at USA Basketball shed tears over his absence. In fact some rejoiced that they wouldn’t have to babysit Dwight during the run-up to the games. At the 2013 All-Star game, the lay-up line of all lay-up line events, Gregg Poppovich cussed D12 out for not focusing during a time-out. The NBA All-Star game is a grab ass convention, if Howard was checked out to the extent that Popp had to drop a few f-bombs on him, that’s saying something. After all the shenanigans and back and forth that led Dwight to L.A. last off-season, Superman had the gall to call out his former Magic teammate to which J.J. Reddick responded "I would be more surprised when Dwight starts taking responsibility. That would be the most negative thing I can say, but that's the truth.” Jameer Nelson added “At some point, when are you [Dwight] gonna as a man, when are you going to take ownership and stay out of the media in a professional manner?” Fair question, at this point is that ever likely to happen.
The Rockets and Fat Elvis couldn’t pass on the potential that Dwight Howard brings to the table. At his best, Howard could be a top 5 player in the league, a definite game changer in a league that covets game changers as much as anything. At his worst he could carry a contract and an attitude that would be crippling to the franchise. As any good home inspector will tell you caveat emptor, let the buyer be ware.