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.

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Total comments: 9
  • PhillyCheese says 4 months ago

    Not that I would know for sure, but I think Kobe was trying to bring the dominant superstar out of Dwight moreso than cowing him. It's not as if Kobe hasn't already acknowledged the eventual demise of his basketball career. I

    Some guys do well with a good stiff boot to butt, but Dwight ain't one of them. He needs more coddling. He is not Pau Gasol. I agree Howard and Harden know they need each other and their skills are complementary.

  • bladad says 4 months ago

    I think they work because neither one of them is a confrontational type of player. Kobe wanted Dwight to be his Tyson Chandler, which must have been grating. Plus Kobe is no longer a dominant player and really living in the past trying to "teach" someone to win. Dwight probably feels he will be carrying Kobe's carcass around, rather than the other way around.

    Not that I would know for sure, but I think Kobe was trying to bring the dominant superstar out of Dwight moreso than cowing him. It's not as if Kobe hasn't already acknowledged the eventual demise of his basketball career. I

  • rockets best fan says 4 months ago

    good discussion here.......and some very good points brought out in this article Jeby. I agree they need each other and that's part of their bond. I also agree Johnny Rocket that Harden is the leader on the court while D-12seems to be the off court leader. I also suspect the two have had a conversation about Hardens defense which is why he seems more in tune on that end of the floor. they have a common goal and sometimes that makes for strange partnerships. trust me both still have egos, but right now there is a bigger fish to fry.

  • Jeby says 4 months ago

    From qualitative viewing of game, sideline and after game tape, it doesn't seem like they are the best of friends or anything, but it does look like the work together professionally.

    Yes. Totally. 100 percent agree. They're not buddies; they just need each other. I do think they compliment each other well on the team in the sense that Harden is kind of aloof (it feels like the guys in OKC are still his family while Houston is his job), while Howard wants to make sure everyone is getting along and enjoying playing together.

  • John P says 4 months ago

    I don't care why they work...I am just glad they are working.

    From qualitative viewing of game, sideline and after game tape, it doesn't seem like they are the best of friends or anything, but it does look like the work together professionally.

    If only they could develop the friendship of Clyde and Hakeem...

  • PhillyCheese says 4 months ago

    I think they work because neither one of them is a confrontational type of player. Kobe wanted Dwight to be his Tyson Chandler, which must have been grating. Plus Kobe is no longer a dominant player and really living in the past trying to "teach" someone to win. Dwight probably feels he will be carrying Kobe's carcass around, rather than the other way around.

  • Jeby says 4 months ago

    I think it's could be because they are winning... I'm sure if they go through a similarly miserable season as the Lakers did and are going through right now, things would change pretty quickly.

    I agree and disagree. I agree in the sense that winning makes everybody happier. I disagree in the sense that what I mean by "it's working" is basically that they're winning. The compatability between the superstars led to the wins.

    It kind of all goes back to the "disease of more." Howard and Kobe didn't win because winning wasn't really the goal for either of them. For Howard, the goal was establishing himself as the face of the franchise. For Bryant, a goal was to win a championship, but he had to win one on his terms, with himself as the Alpha dog. He was only willing to "do whatever it takes" to win as long as everyone knew it was his sixth championship on his team. The championship/winning were secondary to Bryant's goal of being the next MJ. He had to have more.

    The same was true when Shaq and Kobe split up. Kobe wanted to be the next MJ, and Shaq wanted to be a brand/have fun. They could have rattled off three more championships together, but championships weren't good enough anymore.

    I don't think Harden and Howard want anything besides or beyond a championship, partly because there's nothing else for them to realistically achieve other than piling up more All-Star appearances. That's why they're making it work.

  • bladad says 4 months ago

    I think it's could be because they are winning... I'm sure if they go through a similarly miserable season as the Lakers did and are going through right now, things would change pretty quickly.

  • Johnny Rocket says 4 months ago

    Another reason Harden and Howard work so well together is that Harden is clearly "The Man" on the court, but Howard is "The Man" off the court. I think Howard sets the tone for the fun-loving side of the team, but even more importantly, he seems to be the first one to say what went wrong after a bad game. I suspect that Harden's improvement on defense stems from Howard's leadership, and I wonder if the two have had some long talks about what it takes for this team to win a championship.