Last night, Dwight Howard filled in for Shaq on TNT's 'Inside the NBA'. Charles Barkley went right in, asking Dwight why people don't like him and why he appears "disengaged" during games. Gotta love chuck, cutting right through the pleasantries and beaming a spotlight on the elephant in the room:
Dwight's honesty was as refreshing as it was enlightening. He admitted some of his own mistakes, such as pouting when the ball isn't finding him during games. He shed light on the natural big man frustration that his impact is directly tied to his teammates getting him involved. He talked wistfully about how great it'd be to be able to bring the ball up and jack threes in an alternate universe where he is not a 6'11" man-child built like a lumberjack. To anyone who's been relegated to the paint for their basketball-playing career, it was relatable. Dwight even acknowledged that he understands his playful personality can be a turn-off to serious NBA observers.
And in an extremely unlikely turn of events considering where we were just two weeks ago, Dwight Howard became something of a sympathetic figure on live TV.
James Harden, on the other hand, needs a new publicist. Barkley openly boiled the shooting guard's game down to "dribbles, dribbles, dribbles" and then he's "either gonna come to the basket or step back and shoot a three." Dwight's response: "Right." Thanks to Harden, Chuck says, "When you play for the Rockets, not many guys touch the ball." Between this perceived selfishness, the Vine-shaming of his defense and the off-court stuff (i.e. Kardashian association), Harden is the new piñata of modern NBA criticism. Not since Allen Iverson has a player this dominant offensively been so divisive. Just last season he was the number two MVP candidate. While much of the newfound hate is well-earned after a disappointing Rockets season, there's way more smoke than fire when it come to the Beard. That smoke was blowing something fierce last night when a star teammate commiserated with Charles Barkley to a national audience about how burdensome it is to play with him. Yet remember Harden is still a top-10 player in a league loaded with talent.
Howard, on the other hand, hasn't been top-10 since President Obama's first term. So a cynic might point out that as a likely free agent, this buttoned-down and thoughtful version of Dwight was a calculation. In that sense, well played, big man. Now 30 years old, less explosive and more injury-prone, Howard represents a major risk as a team's headline free agent acquisition. The questions about his on-court demeanor and ability to play well with others only adds to the negativity. But as a 12-year veteran, he also stands to earn the "supermax" (upwards of $30M a season) if he can convince a team he's worth it. This TNT appearance should only assuage those character concerns.
But the question remains, can he be a game-changer anymore for a team that is willing to give him consistent post touches? A prescient quote from that interview was, "As a big man sometimes, you want to feel like you're a part of what's going on." This subtle dig at Harden provides a window into Dwight's motivations. He wants the ball in post-ups where he can feel he's a material contributor to his team's success. It's not a unique desire among big men. This is where we point out, though, that last season he converted post-ups into points just 46% of the time, per NBA.com. But Dwight remembers the years in Orlando when he put himself on the map as a dominant player in the paint. Even then, however, he wasn't Hakeem Olajuwon, with a bevy of go-to moves that would create reliable points in post-up situations. He was a force of nature who overpowered defenders with rim (and shot-clock) rattling dunks:
Those moments are few and far between these days. You can blame Harden for that, but you'd be overlooking the decline in Howard's physical abilities. He'll be entering his 13th season next year, coming off averages of 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Contrast that with his 2010-11 season with Orlando, when at age 25 he blitzed the league with a 22.9/14.1/2.4 stat line and had to be game planned for on both ends. Big men with back problems don't age gracefully. It's sad, but 'Superman' Dwight is not coming back. As is often the case, the player is the last one to realize it.
He'll very likely opt out of his deal. For the Rockets it's a blessing; for Howard, it might mean a massive payday as he continues to chase the memory of his Orlando days.
As for Harden, here's hoping he has Dwight's TNT performance playing on a loop in the gym as he works on his game this summer.