Going straight from high school to the pros, he never enjoyed the pleasure of being recruited or choosing where—and with whom—he wanted to play. That provided built-in excuses for his shortcomings or perceived failures. The chance to finally decide where—and with whom—he wanted to play came with a price: No More Excuses. It took another year, but the temperature in the crucible finally reached the necessary level to mold him into a champion.
The early word is that Howard is taking a more dedicated approach with the Rockets than he did in his previous nine seasons. Blessed with a healthy back once again, he has returned to being a beast on the boards and a defensive presence in the paint.
More important, he’s been long on work and short on entitlement. A source says he has put extensive time into developing honest-to-God post moves with both Hakeem Olajuwon and head coach Kevin McHale. It’s not to where the Rockets are ready to run plays on the block for him, but that hasn’t stopped Howard from putting in maximum effort on defense and getting his points in transition and cleaning up his teammates’ misses.
“He’s happy,” one source close to the team said, “and it shows.”
Happy is good. As James eventually demonstrated in Miami, serious is better.
Now, Howard had no more intention of following in James’ footsteps than he did Shaquille O’Neal’s; a sense of being alienated by LeBron on the national team left Dwight no fonder of him than his Orlando-to-L.A.-fleeing big-man predecessor, Shaq. Yet the path Dwight is on, at least to this point, is strikingly similar, in part because they’re strikingly similar personalities.
As with LeBron, Dwight was drafted by a small-market team not all that far from his hometown that embraced his combination of immense physical talent and fun-loving ways. Both led their teams to appearances—albeit brief—in the NBA Finals, and many pointed fingers everywhere but at them when they couldn’t take the final step or replicate that feat. Both grew weary when the love affair began to fray and made a not-so-graceful exit. Both added to the damage by picking a mid-sized market with an established star already in it, suggesting they weren’t as comfortable with being the consummate kingpin as much as they professed.
It has ultimately worked out for James, although it took a year in which his last few shortcomings were brought to the fore and squarely blamed for the Heat falling short. That made him extremely uncomfortable—uncomfortable enough to mold his game to best serve his team, rather than expect the team to acquire players to suit his needs.
While the Rockets have the requisite ingredients to play for a title right now, the same year of incubation may be necessary to get the best out of Howard.
Case in point: Before their recent win over the Mavericks, Howard was out on the floor warming up at the same time as Dirk Nowitzki and Rockets star guard James Harden. Observers took note that both the aging Mavericks star and the Rockets’ young gun went through their routines hard enough to get a full sheen of sweat while Howard, not going at nearly the same speed, didn’t work up a drop.
Granted, that’s an observation from one night in the first week of the season. Box-score watchers and stats geeks will be quick to note that Howard still delivered a blocked shot, 13 points and 16 rebounds in a 113-105 victory.
Those who have made the long trek to a championship, on the other hand, will assure you that a consistent, disciplined routine from the start is what delivers those same numbers at the end of the season when the legs are tired and the lights are brightest. I witnessed the same lack of attention to preparation by LeBron in the midst of the Heat’s 2011 Finals upset by the Dallas Mavericks, making the entire team wait to start warm-ups for practice as he joked around, the last to put on his shoes and pads (the look on the face of a buttoned-up Dwyane Wade spoke volumes).
The LeBron who took down the Oklahoma City Thunder a year later for his first title had a starkly different pregame and pre-practice approach.
For now, Houston is simply grateful that Howard graced it with his presence, much the same way Miami went bananas over James. At first. Then came a quick success, followed by crushing disappointment—largely at the adopted son’s hand—and the pressure to deliver rose. It’s not hard to see the Rockets, talented as they are, being up-ended by Howard’s lack of half-court offense and inability to make free throws. Those, in fact, were the same problems James had.
Dwight once said he was dedicated to not mishandling his exit the way LeBron did his. Maybe it’s Dwight’s renowned talent for impersonations that led him inadvertently to do exactly that.
No need to blaze a different trail now. If anything, he and the Rockets can only hope he follows it to the end.
• The key hire the Sacramento Kings made this fall under new owner—and former minority Warriors owner—Vivek Ranadive that doesn’t have a Golden State lineage happened quite by fortunate accident. The Kings were touring UC Santa Barbara for a potential training-camp site when they ran across assistant athletic director Chip Schaefer, the highly respected former athletic trainer for both the Chicago Bulls during the Jordan era and the Lakers during Phil Jackson’s reign. Schaefer had decided it was time to downshift in his career for a stretch and moved over to UCSB after the Lakers made a point of excising the evidence of Big Chief Triangle’s tenure with them. During the Kings’ campus tour, he learned that they were looking for an athletic trainer and said he might be interested. A quick check of the real-estate market in the Sacramento area—“They were practically giving houses away,” he said—convinced him to jump back into the NBA game. Two weeks later, the Kings hired him.
• It’s not clear who ordered the Clippers’ okeydoke of the Warriors on the traditional pregame chapel service open to both teams, but no one would be surprised if coach Doc Rivers cleared it because of how hard Rivers already is pressing. Whatever the reason, one opposing head coach noted that Rivers is chewing on the officials more than he ever has this early in a season and, in general, looking far more tense than he did in Boston or Orlando. For those who missed it, the Clippers arranged to have their chapel separate from the Warriors when they played at the Staples Center last week, and a source says they incorrectly told the pastor that the Warriors had requested it. The Warriors, for their part, have declined to discuss the kerfuffle because they believe that would be equally un-Christian-like. “It’s kind of missing the whole point of the Good Book,” said one NBA player of Christian faith about the Clippers’ maneuver.
• Don’t be surprised if the Pistons dangle big man Greg Monroe at some point before the trade deadline. It’s not that they’re unhappy with Monroe, but they need to make room at power forward for Josh Smith, and Monroe should have value on the open market. As of now, Monroe is starting at power forward with Smith at 3. “He’s a much better fit at 4,” said one league source. “If they go sideways, you could see a move.” One player going nowhere is Pistons center Andre Drummond, who is prompting crazy projections. “He will be a Hall of Famer,” said one veteran assistant coach.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.