Dwight Howard, Remember Him?

Dwight Howard is in the playoffs. Really? Says who?

In game one versus the Wizards, Howard played 29 minutes, shot 33% and had 14 rebounds and 7 boring points.  In game two, Howard played 20 minutes, took five shots, had seven rebounds and six points. Yes, he had foul trouble.  But the Hawks went small. Howard watched the 4th quarter.

Dwight Howard is disappearing in front of our very eyes and if things stay true to form, you’ll hear all about it. Or maybe you won’t. Maybe taking the money and playing for a team with zero shot to win anything has numbed Howard to his own tortured self.

But if you believe the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior then Dwight is due for a meltdown. He has this thing where he burns through cities and has tantrums and people get kind of tired of him and he is tired of them. He says and does things he doesn’t really mean after the moment and then tries to nice it all up.

There was a moment in game 2 against the Wizards when Dwight was being lazy, a repetitive Howard occurrence in big moments, and it created a fast break for the speedy Wall to dunk on Hawks guard Dennis Schroder and then trash talk him. Schroder ignored Wall and yelled at Howard. He wasn’t the first guard to be irritated by Howard’s mental lapses.

There is a rhythm and rhyme to Howard’s madness. When he isn’t featured in the offense or when he is having a mediocre game, he sleep walks. He loses interest. Howard isn’t the central force of the Hawks glory and he was never going to be. Did he even see the Hawks play or was Howard to Atlanta capitalism at its finest, a holy hell  money grab, the last max contract he will ever get? Paul Millsap and Dennis Schroder are the center objects in Atlanta for obvious reasons. Schroder has speed and Millsap has an offensive game to go with toughness. He never ever quits.

Predictably, after the game, when asked questions about his lackluster performance Howard fell back into his normal script of “I don’t know ” answers. It is the Howard way of saying he is pissed about his fourth quarter absence and his lack of “touches”, a boring Howard talking point. Through two games he looks absolutely miserable. But wait a minute, isn’t that the Howard continuing saga, misery? His coach said, “He had a gut feeling” to keep him on the bench and go small.

The problem here is the message and not the messenger, though in the past Howard has gotten both confused. This was a tight game down the stretch. But the optics lead us to believe Howard is no better than a 7th, 8th or 9th man. That is what Budenholzer is saying by his decision. Howard had fouls but only four. He still could have gone back in but Budenholzer trusted his gut.

Poor Dwight. Since leaving Orlando It has been an uphill climb, being the recipient of trust and almost simultaneously, being rejected.  What has happened to the Howard career where in a playoff game he only gets 20 minutes and Mike Muscala plays in the fourth?

It was just 8 years ago that Howard, at this time of year, dismantled LeBron James and was in the NBA Finals. Howard lost to the Lakers but the wisdom at that time was that Howard was not finished. He was going to get back there.

Since his NBA Finals appearance in 2009, his first and last, his playoffs have been ho-hum.

In 2010, he lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games to the Boston Celtics, ruining his dream of avenging his Lakers Finals loss. In 2011, he lost in six games to the Hawks. Two years removed from the Finals, the Magic were eliminated in the first round.  In 2013, he was swept by the Spurs and in the close out game was ejected for his second tech. In 2014, Damian Lillard nearly made him cry with a buzzer beater in the first round. In 2015, he lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Warriors who annihilated the Rockets. Last year, he barely put up a fight, losing in 5 games to the Warriors again and then getting into it with James Harden. Or not, Howard already checked out.

Howard has played in 90 playoff games, averaging 37.6 minutes so that 20 minutes last night was a total slam, foul trouble or not, small ball or not. In the playoffs, he has averaged 19 points a game and 14 rebounds. Is he in decline? Has he lost his effectiveness, particularly in a series with a seven footer former teammate who is physical and has a couple of post moves Howard cannot stop? Each year in the playoffs, his numbers have descended. From 26.0 points in 2014 to 16.4 points in 2015, to 13.2 points last year and now 6.5 points. You can use the foul excuse or the refs don’t respect Howard anymore excuse but more to the point is Howard himself. He doesn’t have the quickness he used to shame opponents with and he reaches and is often a slow defender. He is responsible for his I reach and you teach fouling strategy.

Dwight used to be the most explosive dude in the league. Now he may not even be the most explosive player on the Hawks team with Kent Bazemore’s sick athleticism making Howard, at 31, seem old. But that is more an indictment of Howard’s long participation in the NBA than any other shade someone will bring up, any in-game play. When a player is 31, of course his athleticism is going to abandon him. That is when skill takes over. But Howard never developed skill. So here he is. A player who used to be an All-Star, a maybe Hall of Famer way back when, now averaging 6.5 points in the playoffs.

His regular season was an example of Howard’s regression to the mean. He played the fewest minutes of his career. He took the fewest shots. His rebounds were a four year high. His assists were a career low in the Hawks system in which big men pass the ball. Hmm…It’s been four years since Howard recorded more than two blocks a game, a sign that he is not who he used to be but we knew that from the eye test. 13.5 points per game is the lowest since his rookie year of 12.0 points. His offensive rating was a career high and his defensive rating is still enviable.

It is just proof. Howard is no longer a difference maker. No longer elite. He is a good player, not a great player which means he will give you rebounding but not much else. His scoring is hit or miss. He isn’t a difference maker on a playoff team and his best shot at at a title was when he was 24 years old. Since then it’s been going downhill. Fast. Crashing optional. But very possible.

 

photo via llananba