On the eve of the NBA playoffs, few players are as ready to show up their doubters and critics more than Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets. The mightiest center in the league has always seemed to have the biggest biceps and the thinnest skin. Some characterize him as a nice guy and others see him as a behind the scenes back stabber. Regardless of what may be true or not in those simple characterizations, Howard is happy again and a force in the paint. He is currently nursing an ankle injury and hopes to be full speed by the weekend.
During this past season, Howard has been able to focus on basketball instead of the myriad distractions bedeviling him the prior three seasons. Over his last two seasons in Orlando, Howard faced daily questions regarding his intentions to re-sign with the Magic or move on to greener pastures. He initially waived his right to opt out of his contract in the summer of 2011 and then went through the free agency questions again throughout the next season. Perhaps the free agency questions were more difficult for Howard than some of the top flight players before him because he at least outwardly seems to be a people pleaser and clearly bristled at questions he could not answer in the affirmative. Howard’s playful nature also created conflict with Stan Van Gundy, with the coach publically stating in April 2012, that the center tried to get him fired. While painful for Magic fans, Howard’s departure via a multi-team trade to the Lakers in the summer of 2012 made sense for all involved.
During his final season with the Magic, the durable big man suffered from a herniated disk in his back. He underwent surgery in April 2012. Playing last season for the Lakers, the center was not able to play at his normal high level for much of the season. Although his stats were largely the same, with a scoring average of 17.1 per game in comparison to his career 18.3 average, Howard’s shut down paint presence was not the same. Howard and Kobe Bryant never meshed well and Bryant appeared to push his alpha male attitude onto the playful Howard in ways the center did not appreciate. Further, the big man never got much credit for rushing back from surgery to play before he could truly be himself on the court. NBA observers were not surprised when Dwight Howard left $30 million on the table to sign with the Houston Rockets this summer. Los Angeles may have been an escape from Orlando, but the Lakers brought Bryant sized problems that the center choose to avoid.
The Houston Rockets have been a breath of fresh air for Howard. He has help scoring in the form of shooting guard James Harden and stretch four Chandler Parsons. Howard again serves as the defensive anchor and rebounding force for the team. He finally appears more relaxed and able to concentrate on basketball instead of rehab and free agency. Earlier in his career, commentators often said that Howard would be even better once he was able to make foul shots and shoot at least a mid-range jumper. Those improvements have never really occurred and Howard remains a liability at the end of close games when foul shooting matters. He still looks mechanical in the post. The post footwork instruction from Hakeem Olajuwon has not noticeably changed Howard’s game. Even with those criticisms, he still averaged 18.3 points per game this season. Maybe a more nuanced offensive game will never come to Howard.
The center is currently nursing an ankle injury that has left him sitting on the sidelines as the Rockets finished the season. The team’s defense has suffered in Howard’s absence. For the Rockets, having a healthy center for the NBA playoffs is more important than the results of the last few games. Howard says he will be 100 percent when the fourth seeded Rockets tip off against the five seed Portland Trailblazers on Sunday.
No doubt Houston Rockets fans appreciate Dwight Howard for remaining the best big man in the game and a leader of a strong contender in the difficult NBA Western Conference. He may not be perfect, but Howard is again playing with a smile on his face on a team he enjoys. Hopefully for Rockets fans, Howard’s joy will lead to a long playoff run.
Commentary by William Costolo