Much has been made of the psychology of Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard. One might even say that picking the 27-year-old’s head apart is an industry in itself. And while the talk about Howard is frequently loose and wildly harsh, it does reflect one substantial truth: After potentially peaking with the Orlando Magic, he has had moderate success in the NBA.
A lot of this has to do with his inability to rally his teammates; to enculturate those around him so as to best complement his singular presence on the court.
Winning with a unified team approach disproves all haters, all doubters—just ask LeBron James about that—and it requires a lot more than individual talent. Howard understood this in Orlando, as his interpersonal demeanor was a huge factor during the Magic's 2009 title attempt, in which they won the Eastern Conference. More recently, though, Howard seems to be overreliant on his natural talent advantages over the pack.
Talent, surely, is something the mercurial new Rocket doesn’t lack. Seven-footers with the kind of athleticism he boasts are historically rare.
Of course, injuries—most notably some nagging back issues—have had a lot to do with Howard’s decline over the past two seasons. But his distracting interaction with the media has also undeniably disrupted team chemistry. It’s tough to say exactly what happened behind closed doors in Orlando or with the Los Angeles Lakers, but one thing is clear: Howard was not always all in with either team.
And so 2013-14 offers Howard a chance to show the world that he is now fully committed to a group mission.
What will it take for Howard to get over the hump and prove it?
To show the NBA he’s a real leader—serious about winning, and a positive influence in the locker room—he will need to keep a lower profile in the media, first and foremost. NBA seasons are full of dogged days; doubts, frustrations and fits of anger and excessive pride. Howard is welcome to all of these things, but the extent to which he’s let each of them leak into the news speaks volumes about how tuned into his team he’s been.
The best of teammates (superstars and role players alike) find ways to navigate those trials and tribulations, veiled from the prying eyes of reporters. They keep it in the family.
In order to be a true leader, Howard needs to master this art.
Luckily for him, he has a co-captain in James Harden who’s already gotten there. Essentially the opposite of Kobe Bryant—whose pressing, critical interpersonal style was likely the worst possible match for Howard’s often sensitive disposition—Harden is a virtually silent star who leads primarily by example.
Howard should aspire to make his crew as comfortable as Harden does. He can still have some fun... Harden, Chandler Parsons and Kevin McHale are all fairly warm, silly personalities as far as NBA types go. This suits Howard. And so while it's unlikely that he's capable of being quite as stark as Harden is in his speech—that's just not Dwight—Howard should be tight-lipped at least regarding any topics that could cause turmoil.
More specifically, Howard needs to learn to spout the company line when he’s talking to the media. Anytime he’s asked about his number of touches, his responsibility on defense or his minutes, he should reflexively say something to the tune of, “Coach McHale is our coach and I trust his decisions.”
By answering leading questions in any more detail than that, Howard—along with the rest of the NBA—always runs the risk of sowing seeds of skepticism in his fanbase, amongst columnists and most importantly within his own locker room.
This seems commonsensical enough that any pro would have it down pat by the time they’ve spent a decade in the league, as Howard nearly has.
But Howard’s propensity for shenanigans demonstrates a certain level of uncertainty whether he’d more like to be a celebrity or a basketball player. It seems that, in Dwight’s world, it’s hard to keep the media guessing. He likely sees their presence, and their cameras and microphones, as an opportunity to make more of a name for himself.
Whether Howard is actually funny, or has a future in the performance arts, is not for us to say—this is a basketball column. But he’s a lock to play his sport professionally for at least the next four years—the length of his new contract—and likely for another decade or so. So it would behoove him to become as championship-oriented as possible as he further cements his legacy.
Even the most famous basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, bit his tongue with the media in his pursuit of the most golden of trophies. Jordan’s jarring Hall of Fame speech, in which he was matter-of-factly arrogant and vindictive, showed just how much of his personality he’d been withholding throughout the 1990s.
Howard would be wise to do something similar and keep his character in check in order to better focus on basketball. There will be decades of time to devote to whatever avenue of entertainment he chooses, after he’s made the most of his opportunity in Houston.
For now, though, in order to maximize this chance, he needs to take the spotlight off himself, putting the best interests of the team above all else. He needs to be a leader.