Why Do Howard and Harden Work?

Dwight Howard’s arrival in Houston signals the arrival of one of the most dominant players in basketball, along with one of the most polarizing personalities in sports. Here at Red94, we are embracing the drama of Superman’s first season as a Rocket with a regular column: “DwightLife.” This is the 14th installment.

Why is this working?

After all, we hold these truths to be self evident:

Dwight is not happy unless he is getting a lot of post touches.

Dwight is not happy unless he is the center of attention.

Dwight will not play well unless he is made happy by getting a lot of post touches and being the center of attention.

Yet there he is playing next to one of the most ball-dominant guards in the league in James Harden, he looks happy as a clam, and he’s holding down a top-ten defense.

Earlier today I saw the uncreative but provocative title of an article float down my Twitter feed: “Is James Harden or Dwight Howard the Houston Rockets Best Player?” Look, I love Dwight Howard, but the answer is Harden. First of all, there’s the nobody’s-done-this-since-Jordan stuff. Then there’s the OH MY GOD stuff. Then there’s the advanced stats stuff.

Combine that with the Foot Locker commercials and the fact that only one Rocket started the All-Star game, and it’s pretty clear that “The Man” in Houston is not Dwight Howard.

Why then, is playing with Harden as “The Man” so different than playing with Kobe as “The Man” last year? My first instinct was to think that it had everything to do with personality and psychology (which I will get to in a minute), but it turns out there are some legit basketball reasons too.

Harden sports a usage rate of 26.6 and a true shooting percentage just over 60 percent. Last year, Kobe Bryant had a true shooting percentage of 57 percent (Howard’s was a tad higher at 57.3) while sponging up a whopping 30 percent of L.A.’s possessions. It should be noted that Bryant was a far more effective passer than Dwight, but honestly, Howard had a legitimate gripe about how the ball was being shared. Those are the basketball reasons.

But my psychological theory for why the Harden-Howard pairing works is a little more counterintuitive: they work because neither one is even close to being the league’s best player.

I know that sounds crazy, but think about it. What is the only thing that would validate Howard at this point in his career? A championship. His best days are behind him. He’s never going to touch LeBron as the league’s alpha dog. He’s never going to catch someone like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Shaq in the “Greatest Big Man of All Time” debate based on numbers.  A ring is the only thing that can save him from the fate of Patrick Ewing.

Harden’s need to win it all is, to me, one of the most interesting subplots running in the NBA. Harden is doomed to be forever known as the third banana on the OKC team that went to the Finals. Even with his multiple All-Star appearances, he’s stuck in the long shadow of Kevin Durant, and there’s know way Harden can snatch any kind of statistical dominance from the grip of the Slim Reaper. Winning a championship changes all that, especially if he can beat Durant to a ring. It would give him a legacy that was finally his own.

It’s easy to compare Harden and Howard to Shaq and Kobe, but I’m not sure that’s the best comparison. In the end, Kobe wanted to be the next MJ and Shaq wanted to be an entertainment personality. Both could lay claim to being the best player in the world for about five years, and the egotistical notion that either of them would be able to go it alone is what ended the dynasty.

A better analogue might be Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. They were All-Stars, but not MVP’s. They knew they weren’t good enough to win on their own. They knew that the only thing that could make their careers more significant was a championship, and that was their only focus.

Harden and Howard are in the exact same place. They need each other, and that’s why they work.

About the author: John Eby got on the Rockets bandwagon in 1994 and never got off. He is a public relations guy and recovering TV journalist living in South Carolina.

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