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Dwight Howard’s Last Stand

The outcast of the Banana Boat generation has one more chance to get things right

Matthew Hollister

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Banana Boat Week. We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun.

“Offensively I have to get the ball. I don’t think you are going to win a lot of games when your post player only gets 10 shots. It’s tough to get yourself going and get a lot of touches without a lot of shots. We have to do a better job with that.” — Dwight Howard, May 2009, after the Magic lost Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Celtics

“Blending new parts always takes time, but as long as Howard’s back recovers from surgery, he should be an ideal pick-and-roll partner for [Steve] Nash.” — Sports Illustrated, August 2012

“Dwight Howard, who’s a pick-and-roll player, some people say he’s the best center in the league, but me being an old-school center, I’m going to go with [Brook] Lopez and Andrew Bynum because they play with their back to the basket.” — Shaquille O’Neal, October 2012

“[Dwight] said specifically after the Dec. 13 loss in New York that he likes the ball in the post, not via pick-and-roll plays.” — The Orange County Register, January 2013

“That was immature. I shouldn’t have done it.” — Howard, January 2013, on bringing a stat sheet to the locker room to complain about his shots

“We’d like to get him in the pick-and-roll more.” — Steve Nash, February 2013

“He can bolt down the paint, block six or seven shots, get 20 rebounds, roll hard and get people shots without touching the ball.” — Kevin McHale, July 2013 (italics mine)

“We don’t have our same flow, our same mojo that we had throughout the season.” — James Harden, April 2014, on wanting to see Dwight in more pick-and-rolls

“I think Dwight’s ability to roll to the rim and play pick-and-roll is going to give us a lot of opportunities.” — Mike Budenholzer, September 2016

Last May, two weeks after the Warriors eliminated his dysfunctional Rockets in the playoffs, Dwight Howard appeared on Inside the NBA to talk about why people don’t like him. The performance was at once uncomfortable and transfixing. For 14 often agonizing minutes, Howard parried pointed questions from the usually jocular crew of Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Matt Winer, with answers that ranged in tone from wounded to unconvincingly boastful. Over a dozen NBA seasons, the big man has established a public persona that is basically a less likable, toothier, more candy-addicted Michael Scott. The Inside appearance, though, showed a different side; it was Dwight at his most self-aware.

It was also impeccable timing. Dwight has never crossed a bridge without drenching it in gasoline and tossing a lit match over his shoulder. To paraphrase Morpheus in The Matrix, Dwight’s problem has never been his technique. Even diminished, he is a very good player.

His arc reminds me of Kobe Bryant’s. Bryant idolized Jordan (and why not?), but he did so openly. My theory is that Dwight idolizes Shaq — his “Superman” nickname; his forays into other areas of the entertainment industry; his obsession with being a 1990s-style low-post banger; his regular deployment of the word “dominate”; his hiring of Perry Rogers as his agent based on O’Neal’s advice even though O’Neal had thrown all sorts of shade at Dwight over the years — but, unlike Kobe, he can’t admit it. And it is steadily sinking his career.

Throughout Houston’s dilapidated 41–41 season, all signs pointed to Howard opting out of the fourth year of his contract: Houston’s bottom-third-of-the-league defensive rating; the firing of head coach Kevin McHale only 11 games into the season; Howard’s grumbling about his position in the offensive hierarchy and posting his lowest usage rate (18.4) since his rookie season; the trade rumors; the players seeming to openly hate one another.

Two weeks after Dwight’s nationally televised grilling on Inside, news broke that Houston was finalizing a coaching deal with Mike D’Antoni, Howard’s former Lakers nemesis. There was no question Howard would, once again, test free agency, backlit by flames.

The cynical read of Dwight’s TNT confessional — and subsequent similarly themed Jackie MacMullan Q&A — was that it was necessary image rehabilitation. Hey, all you GMs out there — I’m not that bad! I know I’ve made mistakes. But I’ve changed. I’m just going to focus on getting my body ready and playing hard. Forget the touches. Really. Please give me a max deal.

In July, Howard’s hometown Atlanta Hawks signed him to a three-year, $70.5 million deal. It will be an awkward fit. Under Mike Budenholzer’s knockoff Spurs offense, players are in constant motion. And the pick-and-roll, though not the core of the offense, is an important building block. Per Synergy, only four teams used fewer post-ups than the Hawks last season.

This raises questions:

  • Will Coach Bud change his system?
  • Will Dwight alter his expectations?
  • Will Dennis Schröder become the latest Howard teammate to openly loathe him?
  • Or will it be Paul Millsap?
  • Or Kent Bazemore? (I can’t picture Baze hating anything or anyone, but we are talking about Dwight Howard.)
  • Most importantly, this being Banana Boat Week (BANANA BOAT ALERT): How come Dwight never rode the Banana Boat?

Since the obvious answers to the last one are, “He wasn’t invited,” and, “The banana boat seats only four,” that question seems rhetorical. It isn’t!

The members of the Banana Boat Brotherhood — Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James — are the best players of their generation at their respective positions. (James transcends positionality, of course, and the demarcation between small forward and power forward has blurred considerably over the last 10 years, but roll with me here.)

Howard is the greatest center of his generation. He led the league in rebounding five times and in blocks twice. In 2009–10, when he won the second of his three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, he became only the fifth player in NBA history to lead the league in rebounds and blocks in the same season. In 2010–11, at age 26, he came in second in MVP voting to Derrick Rose and was the second-best player in the league (behind LeBron James).

Yet it is a testament to how clownable and unlikable he is that, even after looking at the numbers and recalling him at his apex, typing “Dwight Howard is the greatest center of his generation” still feels weird. But it’s true.

Dwight was drafted in 2004 (in between the historic 2003 class of James, Wade, and Melo, and CP3’s group in 2005), and his closest competition at the center position wasn’t very close at all:

  • Marc Gasol (drafted 2007) is a better passer and possesses a more subtly crafted, bear-dancing-ballet-type of game. But while objectively the better person to be teammates with, he’s never approached the two-way destructive power of Dwight in his prime.
  • Yao Ming’s (2002) career was cut short by brittle feet.
  • Andrew Bogut (2005) is skilled and tough and dirty (in a very “glad he’s on my team” way), but injury prone and several cuts below Howard.
  • Tyson Chandler (2001) still can’t score beyond 3 feet.
  • And DeMarcus Cousins (2010), while clearly in a different universe offensively, has yet to give a shit on defense.

So why hasn’t Howard felt the rumble of the Banana Boat under him? Why doesn’t he have the warm acceptance of his peers? Because James, Wade, Melo, and CP3 are the cool kids, and Dwight is the kind of player who needs to go on national television to explain why no one likes him.

The core of Howard’s public persona combines an overinflated sense of ability and a cloying insecurity. This is the guy whose own website bio once opened with:

Orlando Magic center Dwight David Howard Jr. is not just a basketball player. He is one of the most charismatic and thus popular basketball player on earth. His muscular physique resembles a 6-foot-11 bronze statue of Apollo. His resume belies his 24 years of age while reading like the first chapter of a sports monopoly. The homegrown Atlanta, Georgian has pillared his brand on ferocious dunks and electric smiles.

Yet he’s also a player whose insistence on unnatural-looking but, to be fair, reasonably efficient post-ups is based, at least in part, on being afraid of missing perimeter shots. “I don’t like messing up,” he told MacMullan in May. “I’m working on it. I have a sports psychologist I used in Houston and I have one in Minnesota.”

Insecure and indecisive are the default states-of-being for most people in their late teens and 20s. Dwight came into the league at 19 and broke out at age 22. If he often acted like an overgrown kid, it’s because he was. “You forget how young he is,” Stan Van Gundy said in 2007. “He’s still 21. He hasn’t turned 22 yet, and big guys take a little bit longer. People want to make the comparisons to some of the other centers — Shaq, Tim Duncan. I remind people Tim Duncan right now was still in college to where Dwight is.”

That insecurity has made Dwight the most gaslight-able great player ever. It would be phenomenal if it weren’t so sad. (Actually, it is kind of phenomenal.) For the most part, the reasoning behind Dwight’s rejection of the pick-and-roll appears to be due to Shaq’s various criticisms that Howard isn’t a true back-the-basket-center, and is, instead, a “European-style” [thinking face emoji] pick-and-roll player.

“I don’t know if I like Dwight Howard deferring to James Harden so much,” Shaq said in 2015. “I know James is playing great, but I know from experience if you want to win a championship you have to dominate. It’s not good enough to be a good/great big man. You have to dominate.” The Big Motivator continued: “A lot of people may think I’m picking on him. I’m not picking on him. I have to stay on the big man like the forefathers stayed on me.”

Considering how devastating Dwight was, and still can be (he scored 1.10 points per possession as the roll man in 2015–16, in the top third of the league), in the pick-and-roll, Shaq’s advice/criticism to Dwight is essentially a species of sabotage. That Howard has been falling for it for years only makes him more unpalatable. We’re inured to superstars who shoot bad shots way too often. That’s decisiveness. That’s not Dwight Howard.

Even arch instigator and elite testicle-pummeler Draymond Green got into the act. Last April, after the Warriors blew out Houston by 26 points in Game 1 of the first round, Green said, “I was surprised they didn’t go into Dwight earlier. The big fella was ready for his post sessions, but the first six minutes he probably didn’t get a touch.”

“The big fella was ready for his post sessions” is such obvious trolling that it borders on genius.

Dwight, of course, couldn’t help himself. “I thank Draymond for saying that,” he said the next day at practice, before saying, actually, it didn’t matter. “If I get the ball, if I don’t get the ball, if I score two points or I score 30 points. I got to go out there and play as hard as I can as long as I’m on the floor, that’s all that really matters.”

A few weeks later, Dwight would be on television lamenting his lack of involvement in Houston’s offense.

The Hawks are probably Dwight’s last chance to slip through the conceptual sliding doors and embrace what he’s truly great at. That is, if it isn’t too late. The irony of young Dwight is that, while he might have resembled a “bronze statue of Apollo,” his physique was built for mobility and leaping, not banging for and holding down low-post position. That player faded. Howard’s peak is now six years gone.

If Coach Bud can convince Dwight that rolling to the rim, where all he has to do is catch and finish, is in his best interests, and is, indeed, what he’s best at, the Hawks will have a very effective player. One who, in theory, should solve the team’s Al Horford–related inability to secure rebounds. Last season, 54 percent of Schröder’s offensive possessions were pick-and-rolls, the third-highest percentage of such plays in the league. Dwight’s best chance for a truly fresh start is eschewing his post-ups and following his own advice to play hard and not worry about touches.

Maybe it will happen. If past is prologue, though, within two seasons, and probably less, we’ll have one more burning bridge, and a banana boat sailing into the sunset.

Every team that plays the Hawks this season should designate one player to tell Dwight, “Wow, I can’t believe they aren’t feeding you down low.” History says he’ll fall for it.