HOUSTON: If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, then the cell phone shots that Dwight Howard took with adoring Houston Rockets fans at Rudy’s Country Store & BBQ last week might have been a tad deceiving.
Howard, who stopped into one of his favorite spots on the 28-mile drive from the team’s Toyota Center arena to his palatial home in the suburb of Richmond, flashed that Texas-sized smile in between bites for each supporter who came his way in search of a selfie. The fact that he was getting fed for once surely helped his jovial mood considering, well, it doesn’t happen much for big men like him these days.
“The way the [NBA] game is played [now], it’s all outside-in, it’s threes, it’s super-fast,” Howard told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s really like we’re dinosaurs, and they’re trying to extinct us. But the Ice Age will not come, and we will not be extinct.
“You watch a guy like Shaq [O’Neal] or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and all these guys, and I don’t know if they would want to just play with guys shooting threes and stuff like that. They want to be fed, but it’s the evolution of the game. And the way you stay relevant is trying to find ways to play without focusing on not getting the ball … I think it’s all just a mindset. Some teams are better at it than others.”
As the 30-year-old Howard nears free agency this summer, the inherent problem with his current situation is that he plays for a team that’s at the forefront of these changing times. The Rockets, with analytics guru Daryl Morey as their general manager and All-Star guard James Harden as the long-distance leader, ranked first in three points attempts last season (32.7 per game) and are second behind Stephen Curry and his Golden State Warriors this season (31).
The key difference this time around, one that has made things a tad tense in Houston these days and might very well lead to his departure, is that the strategy isn’t working. The Rockets, whose second place finish in the brutal West last season was followed by their first conference finals appearance since 1997, at right at .500 and just in the playoffs. Howard, who averaged 13.4 attempts per game from 2010-12 during the peak of his post dominance, is at a career-low 8.8 per, with only his rookie season – 8.3 per – lower. In a recent stretch, Howard had a combined 22 shots against Memphis, the Clippers, Minnesota and Atlanta and the team went 2-2.
And while Howard – as was revealed in recent days – is the one who uses Stickum spray on his hands during games to help with his grip, it’s Harden whose penchant for holding the ball is worthy of an Elmer’s Glue sponsorship. Harden’s usage rate, which calculates the percentage of a team’s offensive possessions that a player uses, leads all perimeter players in the NBA at 32.8.
Howard now finds himself longing for the days when things were different.
“Since I’ve been in the NBA, especially when we (were) in Orlando and (then-coach) Stan (Van Gundy) got there, he made a big emphasis on playing inside-out, and really just playing a bully-type style of basketball,” said Howard, who plans on declining his $23.2 million player option for next season. “And we did pick and rolls too, so it was kind of like a mixture. That’s what threw teams off. It wasn’t (just) me getting post-ups so I can always score, but it was doing that to free up our shooters, to give them more space (and) to really shoot the ball.
“I feel like that’s a very successful way of playing. I know (the Rockets) have their opinions or whatever. (But) for the rest of the season, I’m going to make it an effort just to do what they need me to do offensively and defensively, and not focus on what happened back in Orlando (and) what happened in LA (with the Lakers) and just put my mind to finishing this season on a real high note.”
Problem for today’s bigs
With big men fast becoming NBA relics, the question of what that means for players like Howard on the open market remains unresolved. Even with the forthcoming salary cap spike (from $67 million to an estimated $92 million), teams will have to decide how many, if any, of the available centers are worth a maximum-salary deal that could cost a combined $145 million over five years. The free agency field of centers is rich, with Howard, Andre Drummond, Joakim Noah, Hassan Whiteside, and Al Jefferson among the group, but how rich they will be remains to be seen.
This much is clear as it relates to Howard: he cares greatly about getting one last long-term max deal before his twilight years arrive, and he’s not about to accept the rationale that his recent healthy history means he should take a discount. Only time will tell if Howard was delusional or prophetic about his own future.
He wants to play until he’s 40, to channel his inner Kevin Willis [who played until he was 44]or Abdul-Jabbar (41) while eventually transitioning from high-level NBA player to sage veteran voice. He wants to be “Superman” again and be known as one of the most dominant bigs in the game, even if he’s the first to admit that it’s harder than ever to get off the ground like he used to as a youngster. There is a chorus of cynicism surrounding the idea that he can do either, but Howard – agree with him or not – sees hope in some relevant places.
He sees the renaissance of his former Lakers teammate, Pau Gasol, the 35-year-old who returned to All-Star form when he signed with Chicago two summers ago.
“Everybody thought a couple years ago that Pau couldn’t play,” said Howard, who is averaging 14.5 points (on 61.5% shooting), 12.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. “He gets to Chicago, and it’s just a different situation, a different offense, a different scheme. And he was able to thrive. So I think players thrive in the situations that they may be put in.”
He sees the beneath-the-surface stats that paint a compelling picture, offering evidence that he might still be a force if given the chance.
“(For people to) assume that I can’t play anymore because of what they look at, you know it upsets me,” said Howard, who has averaged 22.4 points and 14.4 rebounds in the 12 games where he had at least 12 shots. “I think that’s what sometimes messes with my head during games. I get frustrated, and then I allow what is being said (about the state of his game) to affect me in a way where I can’t be who I am every single night, and who my teammates need me to be.”
Yet Howard’s production has been on the decline since the back surgery in the summer of 2012 that cost him in his time with the Lakers. There were knee issues that cost him significant time last season (he played 41 regular season games) and back issues sidelined him leading into this one (he missed all of training camp and all but one game of the preseason). That hasn’t helped reputation as an injury-prone player.
Along the way, his string of eight consecutive All-Star appearances that ran from 2007 to 2014 has segued into a two-year absence.
“That bothered me a lot,” said Howard, who spent the All-Star break on a personal retreat of sorts in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I really wanted to be at All-Star weekend. I really wanted to be a part of everything, but I felt like I needed to get myself together (in Scottsdale). You have those moments in life, where you really just have to get away from everything to really get the big picture.”
Next season, he vows, he’ll be back.
“This situation won’t happen again (where) I’m not there,” he declared.
The declaration alone is enough to convince you his Rockets days are numbered.
On the move again?
If Howard is to remain with the Rockets, it will likely take this unlikely scenario: he fails to find the max money he desires elsewhere, not to mention the scoring role he had before. He would have to resist the urge to change teams yet again while taking a less-than-max deal. It’s merely one of many factors, but Howard is aware of his reputation as a deserter.
“It’s always a factor, because I’m a people person,” said Howard, who was lambasted after his trade demand in Orlando sent him to the Lakers and roundly criticized yet again when he left Los Angeles three summers ago. “Each city that I’ve been in, I’ve really tried to get into the community. When you build relationships with people that’s beyond basketball, and you have to leave, it really hurts. That’s something that does hurt me when people say, ‘Oh, he’s selfish’ and all that stuff. It affects me.
“Leaving Orlando, it affected me to the point where there were times where we were playing (with the Lakers) and I was like, ‘Man, these people don’t understand how much love I have for this city. It’s bigger than just basketball.”
But the basketballwill have everything to do with what happens next and that’s the problem.
When Howard signed with the Rockets in the summer of 2013, their “Legacy of Bigs” – as the poster that’s plastered on the Toyota Center parking garage still reads – was an attractive part of the franchise’s history. The image, with Howard up top and Yao Ming, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Samp¬son, Elvin Hayes and Moses Ma¬lone below, was supposed to be a foreshadowing of greatness to come.
Instead, even Olajuwon admits he’s not sure if Howard’s days in Houston are about to come to an end.
“I know he loves Houston, and he wants to be here,” Olajuwon told USA TODAY Sports. “(He’s) trying to find his identity again. I think for a big man like Dwight, more of the frustration is not being utilized. He can do much more. All the big men always feel that way. That’s natural. But what I try to tell him is get more in the flow of the game.”
“There are some intangibles (that are important). It’s not ‘I want the points. I want the rebounds.’ (It’s) intimidation, fighting for position, and (making it so) his man can’t leave him and that creates more room for James to (roam), and where if you leave him it’s a lob … There are other intangibles to bring to the team. Just win games. Don’t worry about it. Just win.”
Hard times with Harden
There’s an inverse relationship between sacrifice and success, though, and the lack of winning this season has clearly made it harder for Howard to accept his minimized role. What’s more, it has sparked season-long questions about whether the Harden-Howard pairing can still work.
Those who see them side by side every day say this is hardly Kobe-Shaq, Part II, that both players consistently try to fix what’s broken and even occasionally go to dinner together to discuss such matters. But they clearly have trust issues on the floor, and the smallest little thing – a blown screen by Howard, a missed pass on the roll by Harden – can derail their chemistry on any given night.
Howard understands Harden’s current place. Harden is an MVP-caliber talent with a franchise on his back, just like Howard was in the Orlando days.
¬“People feel … like we hate each other,” Howard said. “I have no hate in my blood for this man, you know? For what? He came from nothing. We both came from nothing. And we’re doing something that we love. We grew up playing this game for fun, and we had big dreams of making it to the NBA.
“So I would never hate this man because I know what it took for me to get here, and he made it. So I want him to succeed. I want us to succeed. Before coming here, I watched endless hours of YouTube videos on James Harden, before he had the beard. I watched all that stuff, because I’m like, ‘Dang, this boy, he’s got so much talent.’
“We both have to figure out how we’re going to make this thing work. It’s on us. We’ve got the rest of the season, and the playoffs, and we can do it. It’s a mindset. It’s a mentality. And the whole team will fall in line when me and him are on that same page and the team sees that we’re strong together. … Collectively, if we just come together like we’re supposed to…”
“It takes time, you know?” he said. “It takes time. If we can just come together like we’re supposed to and like we want to, then I’m telling you, we can win a championship.”
But time—in this season and perhaps Howard’s run with the Rockets—is running out. And the picture being painted in Houston, at least for now, isn’t nearly as joyful as those selfies he posed for back at Rudy’s.