Houston Rockets v Washington Wizards

It's time for Dwight Howard to take a long, hard look at himself

Dwight Howard's recent ESPN interview throws up more questions than answers

This week, Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets (for five more weeks, at least) was the subject of a rather illuminating interview with Jackie McMullan at ESPN.com.

Although contracted through the end of next season, Howard has the ability to opt out of his deal this summer, and considering the huge salary cap spike that is about to galvanise the upcoming free agent period, he is almost certainly going to do so.

This does not prohibit him from remaining in Houston, but in light of the lackluster Rockets season, his own reduced role and his supposed terse relationship with James Harden, it has long been assumed that he was going to leave the team this summer. And if anyone still thought there was a chance, there probably won't be now after this interview.

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder

Asked why he was (by his own admission) clearly disinterested at parts of this season, Howard responded in part by calling out Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey: "I felt like my role was being reduced. I went to Daryl and said, 'I want to be more involved.' Daryl said, 'No, we don't want you to be.' My response was, 'Why not? Why am I here?' It was shocking to me that it came from him instead of our coach. So I said to him, 'No disrespect to what you do, but you've never played the game. I've been in this game a long time. I know what it takes to be effective.'"

This is what you do when you have no intention of staying. When a situation is irretrievable, and you really need people to think it wasn't your fault. And Dwight really does need that.

"I went to Daryl and said, 'I want to be more involved.' Daryl said, 'No, we don't want you to be.'" - Dwight Howard

In his 12 year career thus far, Dwight has played for three teams, yet he will now leave all three under a cloud. This interview was a PR move made with that in mind. Whatever he gets in free agency this summer will almost certainly be the final massive contract of Howard's career - his age and mileage are creeping up, his impact diminished, his star power has already dimmed, and all these things are going to get worse.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

Moreover, there is a perception of Dwight Howard, and he knows it. It is not a favourable perception. It is a perception of a player with tremendous physical gifts that have gone somewhat wasted. I wrote about it myself a fortnight ago:

"For all the athleticism and dunking of his youth, Howard has never used those skills in an efficient way. So much of his career arc has been about his abilities or inabilities in the post, where he has good post moves, just not much natural touch outside of this. Tyson Chandler in his prime scored about as much as Howard does now without the abilities to catch, dribble, shoot, score with his left hand, score with his right hand, five hundred free throw attempts given to him per night or create on the block.

For all the athleticism and dunking of his youth, Howard has never used those skills in an efficient way. So much of his career arc has been about his abilities or inabilities in the post, where he has good post moves, just not much natural touch outside of this.

"He [Chandler] could do this because he knew when to run, where to be, how to play pick and roll, and how to be an alley-oop threat at pretty much all times. Most of that can also be said of DeAndre Jordan today. It is true that Howard has never had a Chris Paul (the common denominator in both the above examples) to make him look better at this in the way that Chandler and Jordan have. But for all the focus on his offensive skills, Howard has largely avoided scrutiny of the subpar way he has used all his physical tools. In light of his team's offensive inefficiencies and inability to create nearly enough easy looks considering all their talent, this is now jarring."

Washington Wizards v Houston Rockets

Combined with this is Howard's reputation for being hypersensitive to criticism, another topic he addresses in his ESPN.com interview.

"I used to shoot 1,000 shots a day. I called Kobe when I was still playing in Orlando and asked him what I should do. He's the one who told me to take 1,000 a day. So I'd practice and practice them but then I'd be so afraid to take them in a game because I was so worried I would miss. I hate messing up. I hate failure. I was just talking to (WNBA) star Tina Thompson the other day about it. I told her about my fear of missing and she said, 'Dwight, you're gonna miss. Everyone does.' But I want to be perfect."

And added onto that is Howard’s interest in his off-court brand, to which he gives a particularly insufficient rebuttal:

"I was just talking to (WNBA) star Tina Thompson the other day about it. I told her about my fear of missing and she said, 'Dwight, you're gonna miss. Everyone does.' But I want to be perfect." - Dwight Howard

“I loved Orlando. I loved the city, but at that time, I didn't feel winning was a priority. I really wanted to win. People will come back and say, 'Well, you were all over the place making movies.' Like I don't love the game or something. I love basketball. It is my passion. But, I've always thought if you just sit back and stay in one lane your whole life, I'll get old and be done with basketball, and I won't be able to do anything else because I wouldn't have planted any of those seeds in other places."

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six

Taking all these things in tandem, then, and Dwight mostly confirms his reputation in this interview. He is not sure what people want from him, but he knows they want a lot, and he will only let certain people try and tell him.

Additionally, Dwight's answers to MacMullan's questions, and the seemingly stream-of- consciousness form they take leaves other bizarre tangents sticking out.

He [Dwight] is not sure what people want from him, but he knows they want a lot, and he will only let certain people try and tell him.

"The backstory is that months before that, before the [2011] lockout, I had a conversation with Magic owner Rich DeVos. They flew me out on a private plane to Michigan. I was talking to him about how we could grow the team. When I first got to Orlando, he called us the Orlando "Tragic" and I hated it. I wanted to talk to him about how we could grow our team. I was saying, 'Let's have Magic cereal, Magic vitamins with our players' faces on it so they can get to know our team.' In the course of our conversation, we started talking about what's going on with our team."

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six

So perhaps when piecing it all together, we can see what Dwight wants. He wants to move on and 'plant more seeds.' He wants to do so where brand development is a strong factor, and with 'basketball' people in key front office roles. He wants to be 'involved' more on the offensive end, and he wants to not be distracted by external influences while also seeking out future off-court plans. He wants to be liked, he wants to be revered, he wants to be popular, and he wants to be a thought leader.

Howard sulked, his team suffered for it, and yet he tried to un-sulk (or so he says) because of the perception. Not, it seems, because of the team.

And yet he is a man who says he knows what it takes to be effective without ever being as effective as he could be. He wants to be heard, in basketball and in marketing. Yet he still has some terrible ideas and takes it personally when they aren’t adopted.

It sounds complicated and fickle when put like that, neither of which are desired qualities in a free agent. To be fair to Dwight, much of the above is fairly synonymous with the demands and needs of most writers, the thinnest skinned and neediest people in the world. Most if not all people are insecure in some way. Insecurities aren’t a sin. But such inner thoughts are not normally so readily expressed by a sports star. Especially when the intent of the interview was image rehabilitation.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets

All these things matter when headed into free agency. If they didn’t matter, the Rockets’ plan would not have deflated as emphatically as it did. Curiously omitted from Dwight’s thoughts is much in the way of culpability – even when he did cop to letting his lack of offensive touches affect his overall play, he says he did so once someone alerted him that it would ‘make him look bad’, an illuminating look into his motivation.

He is a man hugely driven by image and brand, whose image and brand are both pretty woeful at the moment.

Howard sulked, his team suffered for it, and yet he tried to un-sulk (or so he says) because of the perception. Not, it seems, because of the team.

This gets thrown into the mix for any team considering signing him. Whoever signs him will sign a player who wants a big role on both ends, bigger than his current level of play merits (now into his thirties, it is an optimist that thinks he achieves previous levels ever again), and who has by his own admission left acrimoniously on multiple occasions.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers

He has had problems at every street, with players, coaches and front office members. He asked for a coach to be fired in Orlando, he asked for a coach to be hired in Los Angeles and left when he wasn’t.

He is a man hugely driven by image and brand, whose image and brand are both pretty woeful at the moment. He is inefficient and prone to turnovers in the low post, yet won’t easily temper his expectation of touches accordingly. And he also just admitted to being unable to develop his game due to a fear of failure.

None of that behoves a star player. And thus nor should his next contract. The four-year maximum didn’t work last time – Houston got only three years of diminishing returns, and it is surely telling that Morey, the man who targeted Dwight from a long way out, now seemingly no longer wants him. Howard readily goes to the media to tell his side of the story, but there is seemingly always a story, which is the problem. There is much more transmit than receive about him.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets

Howard needs to accept some things about himself and his career that he might not wish to. He cannot score consistently from four feet, his free throws make him much more of a liability, he is firmly into the second half of his career, he is not good at marketing, receiving criticism does not mean that everyone is out to get him, and that if people do criticize him, even with only half the story, they often have a point.

He needs to accept that the thought process “[i]f I am utilized the right way, I know what I can do for a team” (actual Howard quote) needs to become “I will do whatever it takes for my team” (actual quote from basically every other NBA player) in way he simply has not done for a decade plus.

When he accepts all that and the humility that comes with it, he will be a fantastic player for wherever he winds up with. Yet if he doesn’t, it could be toxic.

Los Angeles Clippers v Houston Rockets

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