There Is No Satisfaction in Singing Almost

There are so many things which I'd like to write about Dwight Howard that we should probably start with the most simple one: he's not nearly as good as he should be.

"Should" is subjective and judgmental, but really, it's a word of perfect utility right now. What else fits? Want to be objective? Want to shoehorn this obvious ineffable truth into some awkwardly fitting metric? Go ahead. If you want to tell me that the defensive player of the year, the leading all-star vote-getter, the first-team All-NBA center, the fifth-most efficient PER player has done just fine for himself (thank you, very much!), be my guest. It only proves the point. No matter what anyone says in objective defense of Howard, it only illustrates that he isn't nearly the player he should be. I mean, fine, let's do it your way: those pretty, shiny measurements don't belie the truth? You really want to tell me that oh-so-great Howard isn't underwhelming when he's the meek leader who has now twice in a row allowed his team to blow fourth-quarter leads against an opponent that is wounded and undermanned?

There is no avoiding this stark reality--precisely because Dwight Howard can otherwise be so good, that he isn't when it matters is hurtful. That he could be so much more only demonstrates that he should be. A break-out fifth season of more blocks in fewer minutes, steady authority over the defensive boards, and the occasional but expected 20-20 doesn't compensate for the fact that among "superstars," he's the one least likely to make you believe. Kobe, Lebron, CP3, Dwyane--those guys scare you, because you know they can choose victory. For that matter, who wouldn't pick a Billups, or a Pierce, or a Nash, or a Duncan before settling on Howard as a player in whom he or she will invest the confidence that a victory is only a will away? All of the misguided axiomatic reasoning that Howard is dominant means little when he so clearly isn't. As the Celtics get open looks across the court and at the rim, I don't see a defensive player who enables his teammates to be better. As the Magic live and die by the three, I don't see a pivot whose mere presence improves opportunities for the subordinates he's meant to bolster.

I get that some of it isn't his fault, but let's not forget, either, that most of it is. It is not Stan Van Gundy's pathetically panicked approach which makes Howard's hook shots awkward and ill-advised. It is not the neglect of passes which should have been thrown that limits Dwight's range. It is not the failure to work the ball inside-out which has robbed Dwight of an actual arsenal after five years. And forget the free-throw shooting; that probably wasn't even the problem on Tuesday night. Sure, it was stultifying that a 60% shooter at the stripe received the ball with 6 seconds left when trailing by three, but it was his first touch of the final three minutes because, after a series spent watching Superman stifled by an always-scowling Jimmy Olsen wearing Kryptonite green, his teammates surely had no faith that he could lead by example.

That's the great Dwight Howard? A player whose dominance has been exposed as such a charade that his own teammates are scared to throw him the ball? Dwight Howard should be better than that. His accolades and accomplishments certainly would say so. But again, I'm not relying on those perhaps objective data, because it's not the real point. Howard's frailty is like porn: you know it when you see it.

Of course, let's acknowledge the parts of this that aren't his fault. First, his coach sucks. Strategically and tactically, Stan Van has been exposed as a whiner whose strokes suggest that he'd be more comfortable in shallower water. It surely doesn't help Howard that the Magic do so little to maximize his strengths and keep him involved. (P.S. There is a sad parallel to be drawn between Robert Parish's regular ownership of Patrick Ewing as the latter's pupil is now owned by the former's successor.)

Second, in a league now made for guards and wings who move in new ways and play with new styles, the traditional notions of big men start to feel archaic. Which is not to say that they are obsolete--the Spurs have perfected a system which starts with the strengths of a traditional post. However, one can't fairly criticize Howard for all that he isn't without also recognizing that unlike, say, LeBron, Dwight is not an initiator of a class that can so easily dominate NBA basketball. He depends on others to get him the ball, to let him have some space, and so forth. A great big man can be the league's best player, or maybe the player who makes the greatest impact, as Shaq used to be. But even O'Neal needed teammates who understood him, and even O'Neal bristled at times when his teams didn't appear fully committed to the sacrifices required to extract all they could mine from him.

This last point is one worth dwelling upon for a moment: we treat big men differently. Throughout Lig history, great centers have enjoyed a unique romantic mythology. From Mikan, to Wilt, to Kareem, to Walton, to Moses, to Olajuwon, to O'Neal, it has been ever seductive to both witness and then embellish moments of domination when physical presence and prowess simultaneously illustrated the game and overpowered it. There has always been elegant simplicity behind the dunk shot, sky hook, Dream Spin, alley oop. We have memorialized the central big man as the hulking ubermacht, a tradition born of the general inclination toward celebrating a certain physical aptitude literally embodied by these biggest men. Arguably, the common narrative for a center, and the traditional role which we collectively envision, unfairly simplifies how it all works. Every great center listed above had help. Moreover, a player like O'Neal always needed an all-star wing to illustrate Shaq's own greatness, an odd cipher in which Shaq enabled a Penny, who in turn enabled a Shaq. Anfernee Hardaway ain't walking through the door in Orlando. Dwight does need some help.

Yet fairness should not substitute for honesty, and so we are back where we started: Dwight Howard should be better than he is, even once we control for bad coaches, limited teammates, and unfair notions of traditional big-man exceptionalism. None of this means that Howard won't get better, or cannot. In fact, the shortcomings of the Magic this year may ultimately serve to heighten the enthusiasm with which we congratulate Howard for an ultimate triumph. At 23, he has time to improve. But right now, not even YouTube dancing or elaborate all-star theatrics can excuse that Howard was invisible on Tuesday, did nothing to stop Sunday, and has emerged as something of a vexing enigma.

Really, he should be better than that.

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At 5/14/2009 2:05 AM, Blogger The Other Van Gundy said...

I'm glad you bring up Ewing, because Howard recently demonstrated the validity of the Ewing Theory. (For those don't know: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/print?id=1193711) After Howard got suspended against the sixers in Game 6, the Magic came out and dominated. If you'll read through Simmons article, you might see some chilling stuff, especially if you're a fan of Howard.

Simmons says one of the 2 key ingredients of this theory is "A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series)."


At 5/14/2009 2:15 AM, Blogger Phoebus said...

Lord, he's just a young pup, that's all. big men especially take their time before dominating, shaq and amare excluded, yao and kg and hakeem and even dare i say duncan took a while to hit their strides. the inside game takes longer to master than the kobe one.

At 5/14/2009 2:32 AM, Blogger dennisedwardlu said...

There's a train of thought that even if LeBron had an average (and maybe even below par) NBA player's body/athlete, he'd still be a relevant NBA player due to his basketball IQ and passing. If Dwight Howard had the average NBA big man's body/athlete, he'd be Francisco Elson, Tyson Chandler, Brian Skinner.

At 5/14/2009 2:47 AM, Blogger Alexander J said...

Joey: Dream Shake not Dream Spin, but you are a Spurs fan, so I credit you for getting the rest of the facts dead on.

Howard's problem, as we all keep saying is his lack of a post-game. Every year since that somewhat controversial draft (T-Mac was deadset on Los Mágicos drafting Emeka Okafor, not some project center) Howard has done things to make himself the media's darling and raise his profile among the kind of fans who have internet access.

He's goofy as hell (So was/is Duncan, but he had the fun-d's from the start, because Skip Prosser, RIP, was a hell of a coach it seems) still, his game is so autistic/athletically based that I wonder if he'll somehow develop a non-sequitir jumper before he learns to use his feet in the post.

My theory is that all these ills in Howard's game can be counteracted by a simple appearance in soul-glo commercial.

At 5/14/2009 4:17 AM, Blogger maggotronix said...

totally agree with your point. Howard has no offensive game. He is young and could develop one, although with Ewing as his mentor I hope he doesn't acquire the 3 steps across the lane hook shot.

As a piston fan, I look at the different possibilities out there and shudder. I think Amare is the best option out there b/c of his ability to take over offensively, which is aided by the work he has put in to get a jump shot and extend his range out near the 3-point line. I see Howard as a better than Bosh, but still as someone unable to take his team deep.

I don't see why teams pay franchise money for players, who while good, aren't good enough to take a team far in the playoffs if they even make the playoffs. If they bring in dollars, i.e. a "superstar" player like A.I. in his prime, I can understand it from a business perspective. Then the question is do you want to win, make money, or try to do both? Not that many are smart or ambitious enough to pull off that task.

Duncan has mad game, including an uncanny ability to use the glass. Howard has tip dunks and occasional hooks. So yeah, Duncan until very recently was much more of weapon than Howard. The changing of the guard is at hand as the beasts of the past worn out by the mileage of a fruitful career hit the 1,000 game mark and fade into injury. If Dwight doesn't develop an actual offensive arsenal, his glory days will be limited to his short athletic prime if he is fortunate enough to avoid injury. One reason, I do like Amare is the fact he developed his O game so that he was more than an explosive, powerful leaper

At 5/14/2009 4:48 AM, Blogger Kaifa said...

Not much to add that's not already been said about Howard's lack of essential basketball skills.

Maybe only that as soon as basketball is not governed by the NBA's meticulously designed set of rules, Howard really is Clark Kent with a good nose for rebounds and blocked shots.

At 5/14/2009 5:27 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

I think that the level of talent in the East this year in the playoffs makes the talent advantage that these Magic hold so much more evident.
Part of why we're talking about them right now is precisely because howard-shard-hedo was /supposed/ to cut through the Scal-perk-big baby front line.

And I gotta say, though, these Magic have far more talent top to bottom than any of those older Shaq- Magic teams. Sure shaq had Penny, Young Penny, who was fantastically awesome, but he never played with two all star (caliber) forwards like shard and hedo. I mean, the 95 Magic (that went to the Finals) had Tree Rollins playing 9 minutes a game. TREE ROLLINS. - In his 17th year!

Overwhelming all this though, is the fact that Dwight is so young. I haven't personally watched enough of him to know, but can anyone who saw Moses Malone in his prime confirm/refute my suspicions that we should be comparing him to Dwight, more so than the Kareems/hakeems/shaqs (who i see as another type of Traditional Center)?

At 5/14/2009 9:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before we go too overboard with the age thing: Howard has been in the NBA one year less than Perkins, and he's one year younger. He has started 156 more games than Perkins, and played almost twice as many minutes.

Perkins has shown a lot more improvement than Howard during his NBA career, nonetheless.

At 5/14/2009 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not a Dwight true believer. But the dude needs a better initiator than Rafer. Dwight is most definately limited offensively, but it would be interesting to see in Jameer Nelson could right this ship. I believe Rafer=losses.

With that said...Dwight needs to look in the mirror. Big Baby took him to school in the forth. The fact that the Celtics spread the floor and went to Baby twice in the post and had success has little to do with Stan Van's coaching and more to do with Super Man's heart/focus (or lack there of)!

Shaq's words about that "sad ass Pat Ewing move" were funny at the time, but now they have taken on the air of prophecy and impending doom.

At 5/14/2009 10:57 AM, Blogger djturtleface said...

In the first quarter of the game they went to Dwight like 4 times straight in the post. He missed every shot, Perkins blocked one I think.

This is why I can't stand all the hate for Van Gundy or his teammates. Howard simply cannot score regularly against a stronger center with acceptable defensive abilities. If Van Gundy would have given him more touches Perkins would have ended up with 2 more blocks and we would have seen another 6 airball hooks from the top of the key. I know he's young, but Superman routinely turns down routine 12 foot jumpers to turn his back to the basket and put up a 12 foot running jump-hook. It doesn't matter how bad of a shooter you are, the hook is the harder shot.

All these truly dominant centers became great by concessions on their teammates part, but I say the day a Dwight team becomes great is when he understands that he has to make concessions on his own part.

P.S. Clear after this year that the Rafer Trade was horrible use of cap space by Magic, and that Rafer is a role player at best. If they just traded for Lowry straight up, maybe a better team?

At 5/14/2009 12:18 PM, Blogger Migel said...

I don't think this can all be on Dwight. Before microfracture, Amare was dropping 40 a game on the Spurs in the playoffs when he was considered to be only a great athlete. If put into better positions on the court Dwight could be that 20/20 guy people expect. A Nash-like point with the knowledge of how to execute a pick and roll would do wonders until the day that Dwight perhaps finds himself a drop step.

At 5/14/2009 1:24 PM, Blogger Alistair said...

It will was a couple minutes into the first quarter of Game 5. They threw the ball into the post, everybody got out the way, Dwight did the damn hop-step dribble so he could cry foul, left foot - right foot, and the hook bricked off the backboard/right side of the rim. I mumbled "he sucks" and changed back to The Biggest Loser finale.

He just looks funny doing the hook shot. With this text book form like he's George Mikan or something. It's like...you're Adonis, dude. Face somebody up, look them deep in the eye, dribble one way, spin back, dunk on em. Or just go past them! Every rip!

After they lost game 4 (at which Vince Carter at sideline with ma dukes?) Dwight was talking about how it starts with him, how he's gotta be a leader and it's on him. It was kinda like -- *AWKWARD* nobody's talking about leadership right now. and if we are, i'm not convinced you believe what you just said. further, maybe you're just not a leader. The media isn't helping him by getting him to dance and sing and be a big lame-o. I feel like he just wants everybody to like him and we just want him to break shit. Even the elbow he threw at Dalembert was just pointless, and he didn't even own up to it.

Losing the game is SVG's fault, but it ain't because Dwight didn't get touches. Hell, maybe Gortat shoulda been in the game for that stretch. But I do think a different coach could have fostered more offensive growth in Dwight over these years, not necessarily at the expense of his defense. SVG's just trying to fast break and get in-out for open 3s--he'd be fine if Dwight never scored and they shot 50 threes a game.

At 5/14/2009 1:31 PM, Blogger Admiral Jameson Sax said...

Dwight Howard is a giant nerd. Unfortunately, he's also G-rated and smiles a lot. Thus, the NBA feels the need to force this man-child down are collective throat.

At 5/14/2009 2:44 PM, Blogger John said...

perk and big baby are regularly getting the ball in the post and easily scoring against the defensive player of the year. The award just doesn't add up. He's great as a help defender, but he can't stop big baby?

C'mon Dwight, get some rebounds!!

At 5/14/2009 8:10 PM, Blogger tray said...

All these words to say that Dwight is an incredible athlete who lacks a post game. That said, I'm not sure I even buy the "Dwight should be better" premise. Should Ismail Muhammad have been better? Should James White be better? Should Josh Smith be better? Some phenomenal athletes just don't have much skill. As non-players, we assume these things are teachable, but for some guys they're clearly not.

At 5/14/2009 10:53 PM, Blogger David said...

Check out Rockets-Magic games in recent years: Yao owns Howard, and the Rockets generally kick the Magic's ass. This is despite Howard's superior athleticism/speed/leaping ability etc..... Yao has the smarts and the moves and the shots. And the free throws. No contest.
Yao also has bones which break with depressing regularity, but that's another sory.

At 5/15/2009 1:09 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

I understand that this is a blog about style, but how can you think that Van Gundy is a terrible coach? They've got perhaps the ugliest defensive SF/PF combo in the game and yet led the league in defensive efficiency.

Say what you want about the whole master of panic thing, because SVG's demeanor doesn't seem conducive to not not panicking. But when it comes down to it, it's the players who are shooting terribly from range and playing not to lose at the ends of games. That speaks more to playoff inexperience than some kind of infectious Van Gundy panic epidemic.

At 5/15/2009 1:52 AM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

over the long run, how badly does this Rockets series taint Kobe's legacy?

If the Lakers win it all, then probably not much. But if they don't, the questions about his ability to win without Shaq are going to get louder, amplified by the quality of of his teammates. If he doesn't win another championship at all, will this be the series to which future points and says, "Good, highly skilled, but no Jordan. Couldn't take his team over the top."

At 5/15/2009 3:37 AM, Blogger Mark said...

Please spare us the kobe legacy stuff, the last thing anyone needs is another comments section hijacked by another bloody kobe debate.

I think Howard has been or has envisioned himself as a shaq type player, when clearly he is more of a David Robinson body type. He just doesn't have the power in his base to get it done on the block. If he hada a jump shot however, then he'd be a true force in the Robinson/Amare mould.. sadly it doesn't look like it'll ever happen.

At 5/15/2009 4:49 AM, Blogger Admiral Jameson Sax said...

@ Mr. Six

If the Lakers don't win it all, the Houston series seriously taints Kobe's legacy. Especially if King James, six years Kobe's junior and surrounded by a talented but still inferior supporting cast (as compared to the Lakers), picks up his first ring. Imagine what LBJ could do with the Lakers' supporting cast.

At 5/15/2009 7:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark, the David Robinson comparison is great. I never put that together, but it seems pretty solid. Although I can't see the Admiral throwing his coach under the bus after a tough losss.

At 5/15/2009 9:28 AM, Blogger Joey said...

One of the interesting things about Robinson was that he never had a real go-to move. He had moves to which he would go, but he never had that one move on which he could rely in crunch time every time. I was always struck by that. Made his end-game touches more of an adventure.

At 5/15/2009 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

/\ /\

Or getting scored on by Glen Davis.

wv: undlyo - not the dilly-o

At 5/15/2009 10:48 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

@Alexander J: Skip Prosser never coached Duncan. Please give the credit to the appropriately bookish Dave Odom for teaching those fundamentals.

Regarding Van Gundy's coaching ability, he obviously knows basketball as far as X's and O's, he worked his way up through the coaching ranks, etc. He was and would still be a great top assistant coach. But, he is clearly lacking in the way he relates to players, the way he manages games, and other head coach type abilities.

At 5/15/2009 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kobe is an a**. Really.Sorry I had to state this. But I believe he takes it too far in defeat.

At 5/15/2009 3:13 PM, Blogger hoyas said...

Some of you guys are completely ignorant and have most likely not watched very many magic games this season. Does Dwight need to polish his offensive moves a little? Yes. And having his first summer in sometime (without the Olympics crap getting in the way), he will develop a midrange shot. Once this is developed he will be the 2nd best player in the league behind LJ. And if the Magic beat the Celtics in game 7, the Magic will beat the Cavs. LJ will settle for jumpshots with Dwight roaming the paint.

And anyone who thinks Stan is a bad coach is a joke. The guy can flat-out coach. He got his team to the playoffs with 2 good players since Jameer went out. One of whom is a frickin’ rookie. I’ve seen Doc Rivers in Orlando for 6 years…if he didn’t get 4 legitimate all-stars on his team- he would be back on TV commentating.

At 5/15/2009 3:17 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Also, as Kevin Pelton pointed out to me, Hedo and Nelson really came into their own under SVG.

I think there are three things to take into account:

1) Rafer plays very differently with Dwight than Nelson did
2) That might have to do with the crisis over "will he become Patrick Ewing?"
3) How can someone win DPOY and we still not know for sure what kind of player he is on the other end?

I don't seriously think Van Gundy will get fired, and hopefully cooler heads will prevail re: Nelson's crucial absence. But you've got to admit, better coaches have been fired over less, and there is a climate of WTF surrounding the Magic's play in this series.

At 5/15/2009 3:45 PM, Blogger Alistair said...

The Magic will not beat the Cavs.
Repeat: The Magic will not beat the Cavs.

I think if the Magic suffer an ugly loss in Game 7, SVG could be out. He's made a lot of headlines this year, too many for a coach. He's done well with this band of underrated overachievers (or overrated underachievers? Probably overrated overachievers and solid coaching, honestly). If he does get fired though, it's not all his fault. But you know, something about Dwight and seats in butts and $$$.

Also, I like KG's reaction when Hedo hit that classic Hedo-oh-my-god-don't-shoot-that-ohhhhhhshit! 3 pointer...he recognizes the gulliness.

At 5/16/2009 4:17 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

The Magic do match up well against the Cavs because of their height and ability to funnel dribble drives to Howard. Also defensive rebounding. For all that we hear about Lewis and Turkoglu being poor rebounders, the Magic have something like the third-best d-reb rate in the league. They're kind of like the Spurs in that way; they lurk on the perimeter to space the floor and get back on defense rather than crash the glass for o-rebs.

That said, I don't think that the next series will be a Magic win (even though I hope it will be; something about the Magic really captivated me, two years ago even, though I'm from Minneapolis). The Cavs are too good at home even if the Magic do keep it close. If Orlando manages to win, it will be because Rafer and Lee (and Pietrus, to an extent) use their size advantage over the Cleveland backcourt on both ends of the floor. If they turn it into a Lebron-must-shoot series by limiting Williams and West, they have a chance.

Sorry for the David Thorpe interlude. I need this place to stay style-oriented to keep me sane after reading Dave Berri. Seriously, someone needs to do write a basketball version of Hard Times with Wins Produced standing in for Utilitarianism. Of course, every bit of Berri dialogue would have to start "Yes, ..." and preferably work in a way to call Mo Williams "Maurice."

And just to make this post a bit more schizo, is anyone else seriously impressed with J.J. Redick's athleticism? He's shockingly been a defensive nightmare for Ray Allen, and he also seems able to blow by him on dribble drives. J.J. doesn't get much love because of the Duke hate, but it'd be cool to see him succeed after everyone wrote him off.

At 5/20/2009 11:48 PM, Blogger Jameyb said...

Good stuff-Chris Ballard already wrote this story though. It's simple: Howard simply needs more playoff experience, and a better mentor/sensei on the court. Pat Ewing is a great teacher, but they can't really "bond" as Ewing is making Snickers' commercials while DHo battles under the boards nightly.

At 5/17/2013 6:13 PM, Blogger Jim Philips said...

but I don't think that he is pretty bad. he needs to do put more effort. I read on Mobile Sportsbook about it


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