Dwight Howard has spent years trying to find the comforts he enjoyed in Orlando. His stop with the Lakers was miserable. He clashed with James Harden in Houston. Going back to his hometown of Atlanta meant only a reduced role and more complaining.
So now he’s in Charlotte, playing for one of his former assistant coaches in Orlando and Los Angeles, Steve Clifford, hoping to find a home and a team that appreciate his skills as he advances into the latter stages of his career.
Howard remains an imposing figure. He is still one of the league’s best-conditioned and sculpted athletes. But the question is whether Howard still has the game, the desire, and the physical abilities to reemerge as a standout center.
When the Eastern Conference All-Star team was seeking potential replacements for injured players last spring, Howard’s name wasn’t even mentioned. Despite a season in which he produced 53 double-doubles in 74 games, including 24 games of 15 or more rebounds, Howard was an afterthought, an also-ran among a generation of multitalented centers who can stretch the floor.
Traditional centers are becoming extinct, and Howard is as traditional as this generation offers. He is a rebounding maven who never completely developed post or midrange games, so in this up-tempo, floor-stretching, 3-point era, Howard has become lost.
Howard is hoping the trade to Charlotte will serve as rejuvenation for his career in a lower-pressure environment. Not much is expected from the Hornets. Michael Jordan’s team has the talent to reach the playoffs in the East but not much else.
“When the trade happened, [Clifford and Jordan] were the first two to call me,” Howard said. “It’s an overwhelming feeling of joy, just to have those two people call you, especially Mike, somebody I wanted to reach out to for the longest. Steve, our team in LA and our time in Orlando [was good].”
The Hornets have been seeking an impact center for years. Roy Hibbert wasn’t the answer last season. Cody Zeller is more of a power forward/swingman, giving Howard an opportunity to start and play heavy minutes. And it also seems that Clifford understands Howard.
In as much as Howard has been criticized throughout his career for his overwhelming desire to be liked, his lack of development of an offensive game and perhaps his lack of passion to win, he remains a viable player and personality.
Before the third quarter of last Monday’s exhibition game against the Celtics at TD Garden, Howard walked behind the basket and signed autographs in full uniform, just moments before the ball was inbounded to start the second half.
“I enjoy him,” Clifford said. “He’s a very outgoing guy in my opinion, very misunderstood. He’s easy to like. He will commit to your city, which he has already done. Ever since Orlando, we’ve always gotten along really well. It’s great to have him.”
Howard was productive in Atlanta but didn’t quite fit into coach Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system, which flourished when Al Horford was in the middle. Howard averaged 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks last season. What has changed as he has aged and sustained back and knee injuries has been his activity on defense. He averaged nearly three blocks per game in his prime. He was wiping away everything.
Nearing age 32, Howard is more of a rebounder and finisher at the rim. He considers himself a student of the game.
“As far as my basketball IQ, that’s been something that’s always been in me,” Howard said. “I just think that a lot of times people see me get technical fouls, the crazy fouls, and they feel like I don’t have the basketball IQ. But when it comes to this sport, I’ve been playing it for a very long time. I watch. I study. I read. I learn from those who came before me.”
It seems the most important aspect of getting the best from Howard is making him comfortable. Howard has proven to be a temperamental and emotional player. He didn’t get along with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and thus the Lakers didn’t get his best.
Howard grew unhappy in Atlanta and also became disgruntled because he wasn’t used extensively in the offense. The Hornets would like to incorporate Howard into the offense, and they hope he becomes reinvigorated as a premium defender. So far, Clifford is impressed.
“I think he’s in a really good place,” the coach said. “He looks good. I think he’s in a great place mentally. You can see he did a ton of work this summer. He’s in terrific shape. One of the things that happens is he doesn’t have to make a lot of adjustments, nor do we. He actually plays in a very similar way offensively that Cody plays. He’s already been a terrific screener. What we do defensively, probably 90 percent of it is the same stuff we did when we were in Orlando. It really has been an easy adjustment so far.”
Being a 14-year veteran, eight-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Slam Dunk champion, Howard has made quite an impact on the younger players who idolized him. His younger teammates have told him how they have been influenced.
“It’s amazing. I’ve never been the oldest guy on the team before and I’m still young, which is crazy and a lot of guys have talked about it,” he said. “Some of the young guys say, ‘Man, you’ve been playing in the NBA longer than I’ve been playing basketball.’ It’s a little weird to hear that, for them to call me ‘sir’ and ‘Mr. Dwight.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on? I never thought that would ever happen.’ But that’s a good feeling, a great sign of respect, and I appreciate my teammates. These guys are young but they really listen. My job is to make sure they’re locked in.”
savoring the moments
Marvin Williams’s long career a blessing
Of the 30 first-round picks in the 2005 draft, nine began the preseason on NBA rosters, which is impressive considering the league’s attrition rate. One is second overall pick Marvin Williams, once considered a potential franchise cornerstone in Atlanta who did not meet those lofty expectations, but who has become a valuable veteran presence in Charlotte.
Williams’s size (6 feet 9 inches) and shooting ability became more coveted as his career progressed. He was a stretch-4 before stretch-4s became a pivotal part of NBA offenses. And Williams developed into a solid 3-point shooter. He attempted 1,054 3-pointers in his first nine seasons with Atlanta and Utah, and 997 in his first three years with Charlotte.
Williams, who left North Carolina after just one college season, is just 31, meaning he has a handful of seasons left. But in an NBA that churns out one-and-dones at an alarming rate, players with Williams’s experience are becoming rare.
“It is different, man,” he said. “I remember being 19 coming into the league and now I feel like everybody is 19 coming into the league. I understand everything they’re going through, the emotions they’re experiencing, just trying to adjust and adapt to NBA life. I feel like every year more and more 19- and 20-year-olds are coming in and they’re doing well and playing well, so it’s really fun to see. It is kind of fun being one of the older guys.”
It takes perseverance, work ethic, good health, and good fortune to remain in the league for 12-plus years. Of the top 15 picks in that 2005 draft, nine are out of the league, while one (Martell Webster) is trying to make a comeback with the Pelicans.
Andrew Bogut, Williams, Chris Paul, Raymond Felton, Channing Frye, Gerald Green, Jarrett Jack, and Ian Mahinmi are the other eight players from that first round still in the league. Second-rounders C.J. Miles, Ersan Ilyasova, Louis Williams, Amir Johnson, and Marcin Gortat also remain from that draft class.
“I’ve been very, very blessed for one to stay healthy, and second I’ve been able to be coached by some very good guys,” Williams said. “I’ve had great veteran leaders in the locker rooms that I’ve been in, obviously Joe Johnson, Tyronn Lue, spent some time with Richard Jefferson in Utah, just take some little things that those guys have done.”
Most one-and-dones have aspirations of being superstars. Williams was no different. He played a pivotal reserve role on North Carolina’s national championship team in 2005, and was thought to have the biggest NBA upside on that roster.
Williams enjoyed some solid years with the Hawks but became more of a complementary piece on teams instead of the central figure. He accepted that role and has flourished in the second part of his career.
“Everyone’s going to have a role. You’re going to have a couple of superstars, you’re going to have a couple of big-time players, and you’re going to need a couple of guys that know how to play their role,” Williams said. “And I don’t have any problem doing that. I was taught the game of basketball was a team game and I’ve always tried to approach it that way. It’s who I am and what I have always been. I’ve very proud of what I accomplished. This is my 13th season.”
The pressure for one-and-dones has increased dramatically over the years. Williams was surrounded by more proven college players in his draft class, including Bogut, Paul, Deron Williams, and Felton. Williams was considered a wild card because he had only one year of experience.
Players such as Green, Andrew Bynum, and Webster were even bigger question marks because they came directly out of high school. In the 2017 draft, 10 of the first 11 picks were one-and-dones, and the one who wasn’t, the Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina, was an international product.
One of those one-and-dones is Hornets swingman Malik Monk, who enjoyed a banner freshman season at Kentucky and is expected to be a standout shooting guard in the NBA.
“He’s a gamer, it hasn’t taken anybody long to see that,” Williams said. “He kind of likes when the stakes are high, and he showed that at Kentucky. Since Day 1 at training camp he’s played at a high level. He’ll be just fine.
“But just as far as being 19 and trying to adjust to the NBA, because it’s different man, you really have to try to be a professional. Not just on the court but off the court as well, taking care of your body, eating the right foods, just working as hard as you can, because I’ve seen guys that are really, really good players who haven’t been around as long, and I’ve seen guys who have it figured out on and off the court and they stuck around for a long time.”
Williams has noticed the attrition rate of his draft class. David Lee and Deron Williams are not on NBA rosters. Green agreed to a training camp invitation with the Bucks. Bogut, who signed with the Lakers just a few weeks ago, could be nearing the end of his career.
“It’s kind of fun to see guys, we were in the same high school class together, myself, Dwight [Howard], Al Jefferson, Shaun Livingston, Arron Afflalo, guys that are still kind of ticking, man,” Williams said. “So it’s fun when we run into each other, but I don’t spend too much time looking at it. The reality of it is this is my 13th season and I am probably at the tail end of my career, obviously, so I’m just trying to enjoy each and every moment of it. I’ve been very blessed to play for the Charlotte Hornets.”
Choosing sides at All-Star Game
The NBA had been looking for a way to revamp the All-Star Game after the current format had become stale. The issue was the All-Stars would rather turn it into a glorified celebrity game with no defense, not even in the fourth quarter, when past All-Stars ramped up their competitiveness.
How All-Stars are selected will remain the same, with fans, players, and media combining on the vote. But the two top vote-getters will now choose teams from the player pool, scrapping the East vs. West format, which wasn’t really the issue in the first place.
The culture of friendships in the NBA is what polluted the All-Star Game. Very few All-Stars, except maybe Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, truly dislike each other, so their desire to compete and actually beat other was overshadowed by their choice to use the game as a no-pressure capper to All-Star Weekend.
Whether having two players pick the teams will add intrigue to the game remains to be seen, but it could cause dissension if, let’s say, Durant didn’t select all of his Warriors teammates, or LeBron James passed on Kevin Love in favor of Anthony Davis. Playing the game for charity may help the players want to compete more, but the All-Star Game is a byproduct of this current AAU basketball culture of players being friends first and competitors only when it really counts.
And the All-Star Game doesn’t count.
The deadline to sign former first-round picks entering their fourth seasons to contract extensions is Oct. 15. Players such as Marcus Smart (Boston), Jabari Parker (Milwaukee), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia), Aaron Gordon (Orlando), Julius Randle (LA Lakers), Elfrid Payton (Orlando), Zach LaVine (Chicago), T.J. Warren (Phoenix), Gary Harris (Denver), Clint Capela (Houston), Rodney Hood (Utah), and Jusuf Nurkic (Portland) are among those eligible. Players such as Josh Richardson and Norman Powell earning four-year extensions in the $40 million neighborhood likely sets the market, but there are some interesting decisions regarding players such as Embiid, who has played just 31 games through his first three seasons but could be a franchise center if he remains healthy. Parker is coming off his second torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, but he was considered a cornerstone before the injury. Embiid could command a potential $20 million per season if the 76ers decide to invest in his future. One drawback of having so many younger players — including Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, and Jahili Okafor — is that they will all be due for extensions without a few years, and the 76ers may have absorb the luxury tax to retain all of them. It would seem highly unlikely the 76ers would agree to a megadeal to keep Embiid long term with him yet to play in a preseason game after knee surgery . . . Nicolas Batum’s elbow injury, which could sideline him for three months, may open up an opportunity for former UConn standout Jeremy Lamb, who is considered an above-average offensive player who needs to work on his defense.
The Bucks waived former Celtics first-round pick James Young, instead opting to sign former Rhode Island standout Xavier Munford. Young may have to head overseas or back to the G-League to resuscitate his career, which never really got untracked because of a questionable work ethic and a lack of confidence. Young played for the Pelicans during summer league, and he lasted just a week with the Bucks. He is just 22, and heading overseas to improve his game and maturity, and get stronger and more confident, may be his quickest road back to the NBA. It may have served him better to sign overseas this summer when the Celtics did not re-sign him, rather than taking a nonroster invite to an NBA camp.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.