No to the Warriors, Yes to the Rockets $$$ put Dwight Howard in a Bind

Because Dwight Howard can’t escape Dwight Howard, this season has been a particularly familiar Howard tale. Whispers he went upstairs and laid the groundwork for the Kevin McHale firing stuck to him because he did the same thing in Orlando. In L.A. he tried to use back channels to encourage a 2013 Kobe Bryant retirement.

Once Howard got his wish of McHale gone, he transformed into the 36th best center in the league. That’s his Real Plus-Minus ranking this year which measures a player’s on court impact. Centers ranked higher than Howard are Jeff Withey, Cody Zeller and Gorgui Deng. Howard, though, keeps plodding along as if this is 2013. Then, his Real Plus-Minus ranking was 3rd. So in three years, he has fallen off a cliff.

In 2013, the 3rd best center in the league by statistical measure was a free agent. The Rockets went all-in. But at the last minute, throwing a wrench into everything, came the Warriors. They had just signed Andre Iguodala, a surprise to many. With Iguodala, the Warriors suddenly had a veteran with a defensive mindset, someone who didn’t need the ball, who had a versatile scoring game and strong leadership intangibles. By adding Howard to the mix, the Warriors would have upped their defensive quotient and in 2018 when moving to a new arena in San Francisco, Howard would have been the headliner. Steph Curry in 2013 had yet to take off as a dynamic star.

The Warriors sold Howard as face of the franchise.

The only problem is that Howard would have to take less money. On the plus side, he would have a team with Cury, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes. Young players with multiple skills. Howard didn’t see it through that particular prism though. It was the money that put stars in his eyes. But always wanting the most money means your career is about chasing and not about stability and building something concrete.

Without Dwight Howard, the Warriors have won 191 regular season games, a NBA title and are the best regular season team in NBA history. With Dwight Howard, the Rockets have won 151 regular season games, they have been eliminated from the playoffs twice, and a divorce is currently in the works.

Fate did the Warriors a favor. A team with so much on court chemistry would have been wrecked by Howard’s ego, situational selfishness and unhappiness being one of a group. The Warriors beauty is that no one plays hero ball, no one is out there for himself just to be a star. Dwight Howard would have been a disaster.

With the exception of his rookie year, Howard is having the worst scoring year of his career. He is having his third worst rebounding season. The last time Howard averaged more than 2 blocks a game he was in L.A. Howard has crossed that 30 year old threshold and instantly it makes everyone wonder if he has lost it. Everyone that is but Howard.

Expecting to opt-out of his contract to take advantage of the money thundering down like a monsoon of rain, Howard’s greedy eyes are looking left and right, north and south. He’s gone from Houston, that’s a given. In 2013, Darryl Morey made a mistake with the Howard gamble believing he was something he was not. Leader. Mature. Star. The truth is Howard is the same player he was in Orlando in 2010 and with the same deficiencies. His maturity has sadly regressed.

For much of this season Howard has checked out which is also another Howard trait. When he knows he is gone, he puts in minimal effort.

The difference with Howard this year than when he was in Orlando and Los Angeles is that he isn’t being sneaky about wanting to get the hell out. In his two previous stops he clung to pretense and to giving the fans what they wanted to hear while having a back agenda. I love you Stan Van Gundy. Fire that a**hole, he criticizes me too much. I love being a Laker. Amnesty Kobe. I want to be the star.

Howard has gone rogue this year. Absent of any charm, he is laying it out there. When in Milwaukee for a road game, he approached Gus Williams, the Bucks play-by-play man, and told him to pass word along that he’d play for the Bucks- if they pay him, of course. Gus Williams was stunned by Howard’s oh so direct approach when he is still under contract with another team. He asked Howard if he could repeat the story on air. Howard gave him the thumbs up and Williams recounted their exchange.

Chris Broussard of ESPN has said more than once that Howard’s people are angling a way to get back to Orlando where Howard left in a huff like a two year old because he felt management didn’t care about him. According to Broussard, the Magic are torn. Some in the front office detest Howard and would never okay a return. Others are willing to forgive, not because Howard is what he used to be but because, the way Broussard puts it, “you are either a good player or you are good theater.”

All of this financial desperation lingers over Howard as the Houston Rockets face the team he should have signed with had he not been so driven by money. Howard has always been motivated by a bank account ethic more than championship rings which is fine as long as you are not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes and pretending you are all about winning.  It’s the capitalistic way to think about how much money you can make and greed is often incentivized in an industry like professional sports where the money can end quick. It’s a motivating factor. For Howard though, the money is everything. He’s not selling himself off to different teams because he wants to win. Milwaukee and Orlando are no closer to getting to the title than the Rockets. But he will get paid.

There years have passed and Howard is back where he started. But he’s learned nothing from the experience. Sometimes less is more.

This is the paradox Howard faces in the playoffs. He’s going to be judged by his ability to be a starting center in the league and hold down his end of the bargain. He has the opportunity to set his own market price by his performance. But that has always been the Dwight Howard problem. His emotions get it in the way as he spars with teammates and sulks and his efficiency and production decrease. In addition, he has average offensive skills in a game where big men can shoot threes, drain mid range jumpers and consistently finish through traffic.

Howard wants a ludicrous amount of money this summer, somewhere in the $25 million ball park, but to get it he has to have an epic series against the Warriors. He has to do everything he has not done this year: rebound, block shots, score, play like he cares. Still, even as he’s not worth $25 million, a great Howard performance against the Warriors will give him more leverage than he has right now, the 36th best center in the league, a center who according to ESPN and their Estimated Wins Added (EWA) metric,  is responsible for 9 Rockets wins.


photo via llananba