What Dwight Howard Must Do to Surpass Expectations with Houston Rockets
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey always knew which player could complete his championship contending roster.
That player might not always have had a name, but he remained the executive's premier target. Until that attainable superstar emerged, Morey's plan of attack was simple: asset acquisition.
He crafted a core high on intrigue and low on cost. When his financially friendly roster appeared to be one player short of a title shot, Morey made his move.
He put a name to that anonymous star: Dwight Howard. The seven-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year now enters H-Town with championship aspirations draped across his broad shoulders.
Elite-level production is expected. So another strong statistical season won't be enough to excite Howard's new fanbase.
For that, he'll have to take his game to previously unseen heights.
Develop His Post Game
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In terms of production, Howard's an elite scoring big.
Last season, which he told USA Today's David Leon Moore was a "nightmare," Howard tied for the third-highest scoring average among all NBA centers at 17.1 points per game. It was his lowest such mark since his sophomore campaign in 2005-06.
That's not to say Howard's an elite offensive player, though. There's some scoring ability on the surface, but underneath lies something even greater if the right teacher can bring it out of him.
A teacher like Hakeem Olajuwon, a Rockets legend and enthusiastic educator, is a start.
"As good as he is right now, he’s still very raw," Olajuwon told Rockets.com's Jason Friedman. "But he has all the tools so I’m like a kid in a candy store."
Howard's a fluid athlete packed inside a 6'11", 240-pound frame. The problem is his skill level often outpaces his technique, which is something Howard told Friedman he's hoping to learn from Olajuwon:
The biggest thing when we're working out is I'm always watching his feet. Today we were working on spin moves and I was doing a spin move with my left foot in the back and I saw him doing it with his right. So once I caught that, I adjusted. It's little things like that where you see something and you put your own mix to it.
For Houston fans hoping to see the "Dream Shake" part two, that day may never come. Howard's not looking to copy Olajuwon's dizzying array of post moves, only find elements of the Hall of Famer's game that he can incorporate into his own.
"It's not about emulating Dream," Howard told Friedman. "The thing is, when you workout with a guy like Hakeem or Kevin McHale, you take away certain things."
Howard's been an All-NBA performer without the benefit of those certain takeaways. If he can add more to his arsenal now, the long-term payoff would be invaluable.
Maximize His Athletic Gifts
While Howard needs to fine-tune certain elements of his game, he has to remember that he's not working with a blank canvass.
Strength and athleticism have already taken him this far; they'll only make the transition to his next hoops chapter easier. Having mobility at his size is a massive advantage, and one McHale plans to help Howard utilize more efficiently.
"The biggest thing that he's been telling me this whole time, use your speed, your quickness and then your power," Howard told Mark Berman of FOX 26. "What I'm working on now is getting my timing, my speed, my strength and all of that stuff back so I can dominate all year."
His physical gifts will make the game so much easier for his new teammates.
Houston's roster is littered with slashers and scorers, some of which thrive in either role. A Howard screen will yield limitless offensive chances for Jeremy Lin, James Harden and Chandler Parsons. Howard's power starts the process on the screen, his speed takes over as he races to the basket and his hops cap the play with a highlight finish.
Defensively he's quick enough to close driving lanes and savvy enough to host block parties and rebounding clinics.
Howard has plenty of changes to absorb in his new home: new coach, new teammates, new system, new terminology. Sometimes he'll have to simply trust his instincts and let his athletic gifts take over.
Morey treated hoops fans to the rare executive's AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit.com on Aug. 16.
During his chat, he confirmed what some had already speculated.
"Coach McHale plans to experiment with Dwight at PF and Omer as C in training camp," Morey wrote. "If it works and helps us win, obviously we would look at using it."
Howard hasn't hidden his desire for Asik to remain in Houston. But he hasn't yet publicly embraced the thought of sharing the floor with Asik.
There are some logistical issues with pairing twin towers in today's undersized NBA. Maintaining optimal floor spacing drives a number of offensive systems, and the thought of two post-oriented players together seemed arcane and potentially damaging.
But it's a strategy McHale must explore, and one Howard should welcome.
Remember, he hasn't always manned the center spot. During his first two years in the league he worked alongside centers Tony Battie and Kelvin Cato with the Orlando Magic.
This isn't a ploy to get back to traditional sets, but rather the only way McHale can put his five best players together. Stretch 4s Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas won't be starving for playing time, but an Asik-Howard combo presents a daunting task for opposing drivers and defenders.
Enjoy the Game of Basketball
Before Howard's uncomfortable exit from Orlando and disastrous one-year stay in L.A., the larger-than-life star never stopped smiling.
He seemed like someone who knew how fortunate he was to get paid to play this game. He looked like he sincerely enjoyed every minute of his life.
If those smiles made it out of Orlando, they were lost somewhere on his coast-to-coast flight.
In one sense, this is bigger than basketball. Regardless of what his detractors said, Howard had to be true to himself.
But the result of playing the game he wants to play can have a tremendous impact on the court.
Remember when LeBron James tried playing the villain role during his first season with the Miami Heat? Or when he told ESPN's Rachel Nichols a year later he planned on "getting back to loving the game and having fun with the game?"
Apparently the strategy worked, since the King subsequently added two MVP awards, two championship rings and a pair of Finals MVP trophies to his hardware collection.
Sure, there's a time when players need to be serious and cut out the jokes. But Howard looked like he was walking on egg shells the entire time he was in L.A., so why was anyone surprised when the flimsy foundation collapsed?
If Howard's smiling next season, the city of Houston will be smiling along with him.
Make the Rockets Go Ring Shopping
Was there really any other way for this list to end?
Winning an NBA title not only helps Howard exceed expectations, it validates each and every agonizing second of the "Dwightmare."
A Howard-Harden duo puts Houston in the championship hunt, but stops well short of providing a guaranteed title. The Rockets have 12/1 odds to win the 2013-14 championship, according to VegasInsider.com, which leaves them tied with the Los Angeles Clippers as the fifth-most favored team in the eyes of the oddsmakers.
As Harden told the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech, the potential for this team to accomplish something great is real, but it's meaningless without hard work and dedication:
We did some good things last year, and I think adding Dwight really makes us contenders for a title. I know it will take a lot of hard work, but we have a lot to work with.
Howard isn't given the credit he's due for what he's accomplished in his career. The way he willed the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals was nothing short of remarkable.
But that elusive championship remains a void on his resume nevertheless.
If Howard develops his post skills, lets his natural gifts do their part, adapts to his new teammates and starts having fun again, he could fill that void at season's end.