Farewell, Dwight Howard


The Dwight Howard era in Houston has ended.  A marriage that began with so much hope and promise dwindled away towards Friday evening’s almost anticlimactic divorce.  In three seasons with the Rockets, Howard appeared in 183 games, averaging 16 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocked shots per game, shooting 60% overall from the floor.  In the playoffs, those averages increased to 17.9 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocked shots per game.

This ending has seemed inevitable for some time.  As I’ve been writing for some months now, from a basketball standpoint, it was time to move onthe fit was just not right.  But for everything to have deteriorated so quickly still is quite the shock.  I theorized just last summer, looking ahead to today, that the challenge in this present moment would not pertain to the question of whether Houston was better with Howard, but whether they could stomach the number of years on the deal it would take to bring him back for the one or two remaining superstar years they still would need from him to contend.  That ended up not even being a decision that needed to be made.

It’s still remarkable to reflect back on the initial signing.  Howard’s capture represented the culmination of years of strategic maneuvering on the part of Daryl Morey, just within a year of the acquisition of James Harden.  This was a player who was just a few seasons removed from status of the third best in the game, and when healthy, possibly the most disruptive force in all of basketball.  Howard was still just 27, and with Harden, 24, the basketball Gods had finally smiled upon Houston, bestowing a duo who would carry out to fruition the promises unfulfilled by McGrady and Yao.  They would rule the league for at least five years.  In those kinder times, the chasm in their personalities was not yet evident, the aches and pains in Howard’s body not yet fully formed.

I think back to a day during Howard’s debut season, standing a few feet in front of his locker as he dressed.  He took his time, stopping to fidget with the headphones in his hand, his back facing me.  This was not the first time I had seen Dwight Howard – I was there the season before in the visiting lockerroom when his Lakers paid a visit.  But he seemed more cartoonish now than ever, standing in our newly renovated space, his massive shoulders protruding out of a statuesque frame.  Dwight Howard is a Houston Rocket, I can still remember thinking in that moment.  His sheer size almost symbolized the expectations he carried, a distinct contrast against the unlikelihood of his arrival.  Star free agents just didn’t leave, and he had somehow chosen us, turning down a richer offer.  Somehow, I found myself alone with Howard, as he turned, and upon taking notice at the crutches beneath my armpits (I had torn my ACL), inquired sympathetically–perhaps as if in that moment very cognizant of his own mortality–as to the origin of my injury.  To add to my awe, I decided then that I liked him.

I had hated Dwight Howard.  From his antics in rendering the dunk contest unwatchable, to his childish indecisiveness amidst the end of his Orlando tenure, I had written that there was no player I disliked more than Howard, no player for whom it would be more difficult to root.  I welcomed him with open arms.  And until this year, he delivered, playing hard, saying the right things, even playing through pain against Golden State.  He was unfairly blamed for the firing of Kevin McHale.  Howard had declined, but he hadn’t gotten the coach fired, as the national pundits claimed.

Until his media tour upon the season’s end, Howard hadn’t acted out.  His problem was that he had drastically declined, deluded by a faith in his own abilities.  He seemed so incredulous over his lack of postup touches that one wonders what the Rockets even told him during the courting phase.  Certainly, they would have preferred that his involvement in the offense be centered around his involvement in the pick and roll: per efficiency, Howard was the 9th best roll man in the NBA in his year with the Lakers, second best in 2011-2012, and best overall in 2010-2011.  And when Howard and Harden actually ran it, the play looked practically unstoppable.  But despite boasting a 56% score frequency, 63% field goal percentage, with a 1.10 PPP expectancy rate, Howard only served as the roll man in pick and rolls this season in 9.3% of his plays.  (By comparison, Clint Capela had an 18.5% frequency).  By contrast, 30.5% of Howard’s possessions came by way of a postup, despite a .82 PPP, good for 45th percentile in the league.  It was baffling, until Howard himself confirmed in print what Steve Nash had hinted at years before: Howard didn’t want to play pick and roll.  He wanted touches in the post.

I’ve long held the belief that Hakeem Olajuwon in part is to blame for the misplaced sense of self worth.  Olajuwon reaffirmed the notion that dominant post play was the measure of greatness for a big man, instilling within Howard a misguided sense of confidence and determination towards self-realization.  In reality, Howard needed someone who would, rather than enable him towards self-destruction, convey the limits of his abilities.  He needed someone who would tell him the truth about who he was, what made him great, and what he could do to actually help this team.  I don’t know if anyone tried, but that message never got across.

With such an important chapter in Rockets history closed, its natural that we now ask, ‘Was the Dwight Howard signing a success?’  The Rockets won 54, 56, and 41 games, peaking out with a trip to the Western Conference Finals before everything came apart.  Some have argued that Houston’s best season came with Howard injured for much of the year, proof that their success was in spite of his presence.  But he was a major part of the thrashing of Dallas, and filled his role perfectly in the comeback against L.A.  He fought valiantly against the Warriors, despite injury.  I say this era was a success even if its intended aim ultimately was never realized.  Houston was in the conversation for the majority of that time span, and was very much in the picture in two summers for prize free agents who would’ve completed the vaunted ‘Big Three’ Daryl Morey so fervently sought to put together.  The Rockets were relevant.  Who knows what might have been had Chris Bosh signed, as was being reported for those few anxiety-ridden minutes.

Unequivocally, it was the right move.  In the coming days, the revisionist impulse will strike, and there will be those who will question the signing altogether.  Make no mistake, signing Dwight Howard, clearing the cap space, and making the moves needed to sign Dwight Howard, were all no-brainers, given what we knew at the time.  It represented Houston’s best shot at a title and magnificently amplified its ceiling.  Its amazing still that they were able to pull it off.  But now Dwight Howard is gone and the task of rebuilding the Rockets, once more, yet again, begins.

It didn’t work out and I can live with that, but there are no hard feelings.  Farewell, Dwight.  Things soured at the end, but you chose this team and this city when no one else did, when no one else has since.  You saw something in this team and saw yourself as part of something possibly bigger.  I wish it would have ended better, I wish certain things had gone differently, but there were good times indeed.  Thanks for the memories.  Best of luck in Atlanta.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of www.Red94.net.

in essays
Follow Red94 for occasional rants, musings, and all new post updates
Read previous post:
Where things stand with the Houston Rockets on the eve of free agency