Biggest Reasons to Worry Dwight Howard Will Struggle with Houston Rockets

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2013

Biggest Reasons to Worry Dwight Howard Will Struggle with Houston Rockets

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    Dwight Howard booked a ticket for Houston because he wanted to "write [his] own story," according to ESPN.

    He said the move was "an opportunity for [him] to move forward, to change the perception of what other people have tried to make of [him]."

    Not to get all semantic, but there's something remarkably telling about Howard's understanding of how perceptions are formed, something that should give the Rockets pause about what they've gotten themselves into. Other people's perceptions aren't just figments of their jaded imaginations, nor are they media fabrications aimed at character assassination.

    Our biases and preconceived notions inform perceptions to be sure, but they still have to have something to go on.

    Dwight Howard has gifted his critics with plenty to go on.

    Since treating the Orlando Magic to painfully inconsistent demands for the better part of two years, it became clear Howard wasn't cut from the same fabric as guys like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. The story he goes on to write in Houston will probably share a lot in common with those authored in Orlando and Los Angeles. This time he'll benefit from a deep, young roster with plenty of years to improve, but he'll have to do so amidst expectations.

    They won't be the same ones that plagued him last season, but they'll be there all the same—this time with his health in hand and a roster with which he can win. 

    Howard isn't worried. Worrying isn't something he does. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be, though.

Last Season

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    It's all too easy to blame the Los Angeles Lakers' 2012-13 campaign on injuries, a coaching change and confounded chemistry.

    Dwight Howard proved to be a superstar of circumstantial proportions. When the going got easy, you'd think you were watching The Mighty Thor post up. When that going was anything less than easy, you have a bigger Josh Smith who doesn't even bother taking jumpers (probably a good thing).

    The short story is that Howard's averse to adversity. Kobe Bryant explained as much to ESPN's Jackie MacMullan, saying Howard "worries too much about what people think," and, "doesn't want to let anyone down." 

    On the one hand, it wouldn't be fair to pretend like Howard was ever put in a position to succeed in Los Angeles, at least not fully. Even if you set aside the combined effects of rehabilitating from back surgery and coping with a torn labrum, the seven-time All-Star still had to find his way in a new system and under a new coach—newer even than the one who oversaw training camp.

    That kind of flux is flummoxing, even for great players.

    But it's only an excuse if you're the kind of superstar inclined to make excuses, which is to say one who isn't that super. Howard thinks he should be able to smile away the bad times and look forward to the good ones, that he was destined for something bigger like the Man of Steel himself.

    A victim of circumstance is the last guy you want playing the hero when those circumstances turn for the worse. Even with a talented Rockets roster in tow, the postseason won't be easy.

    If Howard responds like he did last time around, look for Houston to be one of the league's very best for the first 82 games—and those first 82 games alone.

Identity Crisis

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    We all know Howard likes to pick his teams, but he also likes to pick his teammates

    According to CSN Bay Area's Ric Bucher, Howard wouldn't return unless Los Angeles decided to "amnesty, or at the very least muzzle, Kobe Bryant." He also reportedly wanted coach Mike D'Antoni canned. The absurdity of such a premise notwithstanding, it speaks volumes about the mindset with which Houston must now contend.

    Howard wants the luxuries of having a team all to himself, just without all of the demands that typically come therewith. One of those demands is knowing when it's time to lead and when it's time to follow. The fact that Howard and James Harden seem perfectly natural bedfellows should have us all believing it's too good to be true.

    And to whatever extent it's true so far, that's because nothing's really happened yet. The logic here is simple enough, though: If Howard couldn't get on board with following a five-time champion with 17 seasons of NBA experience, following James Harden won't be any easier.

    Maybe they can share those responsibilities. Maybe Harden will wind up deferring to Howard, or at least patronizing him enough that he doesn't know the difference. 

    If those kind of "maybes" are enough to allay worries, then by all means—worry not.

    But when Harden and Howard suddenly have divergent visions for the future (or even the here and now), the good-natured pomp and circumstance surrounding the summer of 2013 will have us flashing back to 2012. No one was especially worried then, either.

Spacing the Floor

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    The Houston Rockets need Ryan Anderson, or at least someone exactly like him. The 25-year-old Anderson was the one who stretched the floor during three of Howard's seasons with the Orlando Magic. His size made him a serviceable option next to Howard in the paint, and his shooting ensured he didn't have to hang around that paint too often on the offensive end.

    In turn, that pulled another defender to the perimeter, creating space for Howard to operate around the basket. It's how you make the most of a guy like Howard. He's big enough to score at the rim and mobile enough to get there in the blink of an eye.

    Though rumors of Houston's interest in Anderson were quickly refuted, few rumors have ever made more sense.

    Without that stretch-4, the Rockets are left with inexperienced options like Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones—or the unsavory possibility of pairing Howard with shooting-challenged bigs like Omer Asik or Marcus Camby.

    In other words, they're left with little ability to unclog that paint and set Howard loose. If that means going small and using Chandler Parsons as a de facto 4, Houston may find itself changing its problems rather than solving them.

    None of this means Howard will be anything less than spectacular on the defensive end, but Howard won't be satisfied playing the role of a very well-paid defensive specialist. He isn't Tyson Chandler, and more importantly—he doesn't want to be.

    Even if that's really all Houston needs him to be.

The 4th Quarter

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    Some franchise players go out of their ways to take account for their team's struggles. Dwight Howard is not one of those franchise players. 

    Even when the evidence—like striking out from the line five times in the fourth quarter—was stacked against him, Howard defiantly denied responsibility according to USA Today's Adi Joseph:

    We allowed them to get back into the game. It wasn't just about free throws. ... It wasn't just about me missing free throws toward the end. We've got to do a better job defending.

    That's fine. That's fine. People going to say what they're going to say. But at the end of the day, the reason we lost is not my free throws. That didn't lose us the game. Our defense was not there in the fourth quarter.

    Maybe Howard's right about not losing that game (to the Rockets, as it were) single-handedly, but nor did he win the game when he could have. Franchise players don't waste those kinds of opportunities to end games, and when they do, it's on them. They don't make excuses, especially for missing free throws—especially for missing so many free throws at the worst possible times.

    Remember, this is the same Dwight Howard who not only expected more touches with the Orlando Magic, but also expected them to come with games on the line, saying he wanted "to become a closer" per Fox Sports Wisconsin's Paul Imig.

    That might sound like a noble gesture from a guy just trying to earn his paycheck, but it also sounds like a horrible idea to anyone who's seen what actually happens when Howard touches the ball in those fourth quarters. Whenever he finds himself in good enough position to do his thing around the basket, he frequently finds himself at the line shortly thereafter—all the more in late-game situations.

    It's not that the Rockets lack for better options at the end of games. The risk is that Howard will start moping when asked to actually defer to those options (namely Harden). And even if he doesn't, he remains an easy target for "Hack-a-Howard" tactics when they're least affordable.

    Sure, a few fourth-quarter foibles won't doom Houston's regular-season exploits, but they could make all the difference when the games really start counting.

Kevin McHale

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    It didn't take Dwight Howard long to become a fan of head coach Kevin McHale, and that's the problem.

    Having McHale around should keep Howard a happy camper for the time being, but that time may slip away in short order. In four seasons of coaching—two with Houston, two with the Minnesota Timberwolves—McHale has reached the playoffs just once, bowing out to the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games.

    His newest roster is certainly his best yet, but it'd be foolish to believe his leash is infinitely long. As good of a fit as he may be for Howard, there's just no telling how he'll hold up in the postseason. No amount of legendary post play or front-office experience can substitute for a proven track record of coaching teams to the very top.

    Should McHale fail to bring Houston far enough along after a season or two, the organization will be faced with a tough decision—one made all the tougher by Howard buzzing in the ears of any who'd listen. With two years remaining on the deal McHale signed in 2011, it's a decision that could certainly come to the fore naturally and amicably enough.

    That won't make it any easier.

    Even if Howard's fine with watching McHale walk, he'll have ideas about who should take his place. If history is any indication, he won't be shy about sharing those ideas. And that's when the harsh reality of life with D12 comes crashing down with a vengeance: What Howard believes is best for him isn't always best for the team.

    It may not even be best for Howard.