One of the great big men of the modern NBA, Howard is frequently evaluated by himself and various media heads—Shaquille O’Neal certainly among them—in comparison to former legends of the center position. Such appraisals are fallacious, missing the great, rare qualities of Howard’s game.
Howard should know this, but sometimes he doesn't. "We have to play inside out, play their bigs and make it a long night for those guys," Howard said recently, per the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "I have to demand the ball, get it and go to work." This set the tone for an abundance of Howard post-ups to come."
But his strengths on offense have long lied away from the back-to-the-basket play many expect out of him. While his post play is still effective, and should certainly have a presence in Houston’s sets, he’s much scarier to opposing teams when he operates off the ball.
Howard’s first half in Game 2 of his team’s playoff bout with the Portland Trail Blazers, of course, told a different story. Looking the part of mentor Hakeem Olajuwon (who was sitting courtside at the Toyota Center), Howard bullied Robin Lopez in the paint, scoring at will with 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting in the half.
But however marvelous they may be, don’t be fooled by such displays. That Howard was gassed by the second half and couldn’t keep it up should be taken as an omen by him and his coaching staff. In the second half of the 112-105 loss, Howard had just seven points on 2-of-5 shooting.
2014 hosts a different NBA than the one O’Neal and Olajuwon dominated. Defensive rules have changed enough to make Howard’s job a whole different beast on both sides of the ball. Teams can more easily double-team Howard or collapse on him with help defense than they ever could to his predecessors.
Similarly, Howard is frequently asked to guard essentially all of the paint by himself—especially given frontcourt partner Terrence Jones’ amateur status as a defender.
There’s no time like the desperate present for Howard to finally give in and accept himself as a less traditional titan of the paint. “I’m very confident,” Howard told Feigen of his and the Rockets' ability to turn their playoffs around. “Like I said, I won’t let any negativity get into my head or my heart.”
Such a transformation begins with more pick-and-roll action between Howard and James Harden. In the fleeting flickers that we saw of this play through the regular season, there were worlds and worlds of potential.
The two also began to work with greater syncopation in their Game 4 123-120 loss in Portland. Harden misdirected the defense only to dish it to Howard for an easy dunk that sent the game to overtime.
If the Rockets are to have a chance at climbing out of their current 3-1 playoff hole, they’re going to need more of that action from Howard and Harden.
They’ll also need further displays of defensive flexibility. After LaMarcus Aldridge lit Houston up for a combined 89 points in Games 1 and 2, the Rockets found a more effective formula for containing Portland’s leading scorer. It involved a huge minutes increase for Omer Asik and more one-on-one defense from Howard, who’s used to roving near the rim.
When Howard or Asik chase Aldridge out to the perimeter and stick to him exclusively, it works wonders for the rest of Houston’s defense. Aldridge was a much more human 20-of-45 in Games 3 and 4.
By switching on Aldridge, whether he has the ball or not, the Rockets were giving him too many moments of shooting daylight. With a consistent man on him, Aldridge became more likely to move the ball around—and any time the ball is out of his recently Jordan-esque hands, it’s a good thing for Houston’s defense.
So if Dwight Howard wants to push his team to a championship, the time is now to reform his vision of how it will happen. A new-age big man, Howard must play like one instead of trying to fit 1990’s-shaped glories into the present. He must be the big man Houston needs—and not necessarily the one of his own dreams.