Now Is the Time for Dwight Howard to Cement Legacy

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Now Is the Time for Dwight Howard to Cement Legacy
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Back in 2011, Dwight Howard told Esquire's Scott Raab that he'd always wanted "to be an icon. To be somebody."

At the moment, the well-traveled big man certainly qualifies as a "somebody." 

But his status as a legitimate icon is pending.

Much will depend on what the Houston Rockets accomplish over the coming seasons, and Howard's contributions will be essential to any best-case scenario—all the more essential with the rotation losing Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in a summer that didn't exactly go as planned.

Howard has exuded ample confidence in the wake of Parsons' departure for the Dallas Mavericks.

"It won't affect us at all," Howard said, according to The Associated Press' Jonathan Landrum Jr. "We have myself and James [Harden]. We have the best center and the best 2-guard in the game on the same team. It's on us."

Harden sounded a similar tune, according to The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, saying, "Dwight and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets. The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season."

Cornerstone? Best center in the game?

If there wasn't already significant pressure on Howard to live up to the hype, there certainly is now.

Howard has never been short on confidence, but his results have been mixed. Now he's facing renewed expectations, especially with his Rockets seemingly on the brink of title contention.

The 28-year-old's optimism is admirable, but it should also be measured. CBSSports.com's James Herbert offers a levelheaded assessment:

Speaking from his father's basketball camp, Howard went on to praise newcomer Trevor Ariza, calling him a 'soldier.' That's fine, and there's no reason he shouldn't be confident about Houston's chances. It's just that this is a bit much. Parsons is very, very good. Losing him, a 6-foot-9 forward who can shoot, create and finish, will obviously affect the Rockets. So will the other cap-clearing moves that didn't bring back any assets. It's going to be tough to win as many games as last year.

And all the tougher unless Howard asserts himself in ways he hasn't since his eight-year tenure with the Orlando Magic

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Though the eight-time All-Star's efficiency has remained on par with his finest seasons in Orlando, his production and playing time have diminished during his last two campaigns with the Los Angeles Lakers and Rockets.

Howard averaged a career-high 22.9 points in 2010-11, as he remained the focal point of Orlando's offense and defense alike. He also attempted 13.4 field goals per game that year, a figure that plummeted to 10.7 shots per game in 2012-13 with the Lakers.

Despite a slight uptick in touches last season, Howard remained a fundamentally complementary piece on the offensive end and tallied 18.3 points per game.

Without Parsons around, that may have to change.

Put simply, the Rockets need Howard to be larger than life. They need him to be a leader on and off the floor, a dominant presence on both the offensive and defensive ends.

Houston made strides last season, but it also showed signs of vulnerability in its first-round, six-game defeat at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers. If this team can't best another one of the Western Conference's up-and-comers, what chance does it have against more established contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder?

The answer lies with Howard. The Rockets are only going as far as he takes them.

Unfortunately, that could be a problem.

During the 2013 playoffs—before Howard left the Lakers for Houston—Grantland's Bill Simmons ripped into what can only be described as a stalled offensive game:

Did he fail out of Hakeem’s summer camp and we never got the memo? Every Dwight jump hook looks like he’s hurling a rock through a window. His footwork gives you that same 'I’m just trying to get through this sequence alive' feeling you get when you’re watching D-list celebs on Dancing With the Stars. He can’t make even a 10-foot jumper, and his free throw shooting is more ghastly than ever (49 percent). He’s a lousy passer from the low post who has never averaged even TWO assists per game. And he rarely out-hustles other bigs down the floor for layups or dunks anymore, something Tim Duncan gleefully exposed during the humiliating Spurs beatdown.

A year later, little has changed.

Simmons went on to suggest that the Howard we see is the Howard we'd get from here on out, his logic being that players rarely undergo radical transformations this late into their careers. Though there are plenty of reasons to doubt Howard's potential to redefine himself as a more versatile scorer, there are few alternatives currently at Houston's disposal.

Unless general manager Daryl Morey can trade some of the organization's assets for another high-impact player, Houston's improvement will have to come from within.

Some of that growth could come from young role players like Terrence Jones or Patrick Beverley, but Howard's the one with All-Star pedigree. He remains a physical specimen capable of imposing his will in the paint, and he's Houston's most accomplished pick-and-roll weapon.

And yet, there's little doubt Howard could be better.

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Early into Howard's first season with the Rockets, mentor Hakeem Olajuwon broke down what he saw, per NBA.com's Fran Blinebury: "When I watch him, what I see are opportunities that he is missing. When he gets the ball, he seems to be taking his time to decide what move to make, where he should go."

Olajuwon added, "There should not be a delay for Dwight. He must be able to make a faster recognition of the situations and react immediately with a go-to move. You must move right away before the defense has a chance to set up."

So perhaps Howard could be more decisive. Perhaps he'll have a mandate to do so without guys like Parsons and Lin around to support the offense.

It goes without saying anything resembling a mid-range game would do wonders for Houston's attack. That might be asking for too much, but the worst thing Howard could do at this stage is settle.

This isn't a problem Olajuwon can solve on his own. Nor will head coach Kevin McHale suddenly discover a magical anecdote to all that ails Howard. Whether his impediments are mechanical or psychological in nature, the commitment to evolve will have to come from Howard himself.

And it can't come a moment too soon.

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