Two things changed for the Houston Rockets last summer. Dwight Howard, the free agent prize of 2013, exited, and Mike D’Antoni entered. The irony about both of those changes is that Howard and D’Antoni had a prior history together with the Lakers and let’s say there was no love lost. D’Antoni thought Howard was a prima donna. He wasn’t necessarily a team player, a person who put team first. Howard put Howard first was the D’Antoni view. And he can be difficult when he is in pouting mode.
To be fair to Howard, he was never going to be able to fit into D’Antoni’s system. D’Antoni has an aversion to big men who linger and lounge in the paint and who also have a penchant for having the ball and holding it, who want to work the actions inside out. D’Antoni’s lack of structure also was an issue for Howard who thought like Shaq thought: the big dog eats first.
What D’Antoni has done in Houston isn’t brain surgery. He has put the ball in James Harden’s hands and allowed him to make all the right choices about the offense and shots and movement and ball rotation as long as he moves the ball. So far it has worked. The Rockets lead their semi-final series with the Spurs. But would it have worked with Howard?
In Atlanta, in the playoffs, Howard was benched when the Wizards went small which of course caused Howard to feel rejected and not needed, like a fifth wheel who didn’t belong, instead of their max player who was supposed to be in the game to make plays. Howard sulked, as was his habit. But let’s set the whining part of Dwight Howard aside.
Mike Budenolzer’s offense, though not D’Antoni-esque, has many principles of a D’Antoni sysetm as far as the ball moving from side to side and players moving and not necessarily needing a traditional big man.
Before Howard was in Atlanta, Al Horford was taking shots from the mid-range and rebounding and it didn’t matter if he took six shots a game or sixteen. Horford has an ego-less persona that is the opposite of Howard. So even if Howard would have stayed in Houston, he wouldn’t have found the offense and his role in it compatible. Then there would have been the drama. Houston achieving without Howard speaks to his absence making everyone happier, and D’Antoni’s offense making everyone enthusiastic and involved. It’s not about shots and touches. But made baskets and attention to detail.
The Rockets vibe without Howard is totally different. It is more relaxed with an easy flow like D’Antoni himself. D’Antoni once said the reason his system didn’t work in Los Angeles was because he had stubborn people who wouldn’t make it work. D’Antoni has mentioned in prior interviews that Kobe Bryant was the biggest coaching challenge he ever had, he was very tough, strong willed and determined. Many of the Kobe-philes blame D’Antoni for Kobe tearing his Achilles because he had played three games in a row of 48 minutes as he was trying to push the Lakers into the playoffs. If only D’Antoni had the toughness to stand up to Bryant ala a Gregg Popovich, Kobe’s career may have lasted a little longer. D’Antoni has always struggled with difficult players; he is the type of coach that believes in comaraderie, or as someone once put it, Mike D’Antoni is Martin Luther King. Pat Riley is Malcolm X.
Howard has a vibe that seemingly makes it impossible for him to be truly happy but the thing is the game has changed around Howard’s career. Bigs have to be versatile and offensively skilled enough to make a mid-range jumper or drift out to the three and launch. The ones who are not, the Marcin Gortat’s of the world, find their place in the offense and do not complain about how things have changed. They roll with the new way of playing. Howard though, is a master complainer.
If you are doing the math, Howard’s exit was more beneficial to the Rockets than D’Antoni’s arrival, though both were pivotal, organization changing events. Howard took a dark and black cloud with him and now Atlanta has to deal with his upset stomach due to minutes, touches or whatever Howard is finding fault with. In Houston, it is sunny all the time as the Rockets march their way towards a Western Conference Championship without Dwight Howard, and with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni revitalized and renewed.
photo via llannba