Jeremy Lin recently, and probably without thinking much about it, said he's excited to play alongside Dwight Howard because "[Dwight] really likes to play pick-and-roll, and I really like to play pick-and-roll, so I hope we can work really well together and really happily learn how to play with each other." This speaks both to Lin's adorable let's-make-friends basketball philosophy and the fact he must not have kept up with the Lakers last year. If he did, he would have seen an obstinately traditional center who wanted the ball on the block and only occasionally participated in a pick-and-roll set, perhaps because Kobe had shot him a look in a recent huddle.
A couple days after Howard announced that he was signing with the Rockets, Steve Nash confirmed what we had been hearing via anonymous backroom grumbling all season: "[Howard] didn't seem like he really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense, maybe because he had run one in Orlando for so long, and he wanted to get in the post more." This is half-right, because unless I'm misremembering, Howard also didn't run a pick-and-roll offense with the Magic; it was a lot of Hedo Turkoglu isolations and Howard post-ups with shooters spread along the three-point line. At any rate, according to Nash, Howard's self-regard broke the offense.
It's easy to forgive Lin and Nash because it seems like, at one point or another, someone should have been able to convince Howard that he can be devastatingly effective as a screener on the pick-and-roll. Even if he never completely recovers from last summer's back surgery, he's still one of the most athletic centers we've ever seen. Writers and fans get frustrated with him because it's apparent to anyone who knows even a little bit about basketball that someone so tall, wide, quick, and explosive should spend most offensive sets in transit between the top of the key and the paint. Dwight has up until now opposed this strategy, as if running basketball's most simple and famous play is somehow beneath him.
The best reasoning I can come up with to explain Howard's PnR aversion is that he's obsessed with preserving a public image that is clear in his head and obnoxious to the rest of us. (I would say there has never been an athlete so self-conscious while being simultaneously so terrible at getting anyone to like him, but alas: A-Rod.) Howard wants to be seen as fun, which is why he's such a dogged purveyor of his Tyler Perry Presents-style humor. He also wants to win championships, because that's what every player in the NBA wants, but he wants to succeed on exceedingly narrow terms.
The knock on Howard early in his career was that he was a breathtaking athlete and a great basketball player almost by coincidence. This was a wrongheaded criticism because it's not like shot-blocking, rebounding, and finishing at the rim while getting whacked about the ribs and shoulders aren't learned skills, but Howard played the game with a guilelessness common to unattended firehoses. He is -- taking his personality out of the equation for a second -- the exact sort of athlete we tend to resent, one who seems to be getting by on preternatural talents and little else. The type of people who buy ghostwritten books from famous college basketball coaches and preside over the dad-law that still governs sports tend to assign a disproportionate amount of merit to skills that are painful and tedious to learn -- footwork, shooting, ball handling -- if only because it's an opportunity to rhapsodize about the value of dedication and stick-to-it-iveness. Howard has always exhibited skills that seem inherent. He gets a lot of backhanded compliments the same way Shaq did, as if his body itself is an unfair advantage to which one can attribute the nearly all of his success.
To anyone that's been paying attention, Howard has clearly improved in the post over the past couple of years. (And he's started working with Hakeem Olajuwon, hoping to accelerate that improvement.) But refrains are refrains because they're easy to repeat, and we cling to them even more adamantly when they denigrate a player we don't like. Howard has doubtless heard this slight repeatedly and is eager to prove everyone wrong. The only way for him to do that is to sit on the block, demand the ball and go to work, until the sheer volume of highlight clips of him spinning around and under defenders is impressive enough to make clear that when Charles Barkley says Howard hasn't gotten any better since 2009, he's being unfair.
That Howard is trying to refine his game is an objectively good thing. It speaks to how much most people dislike him that we read his hard work as motivated by petulance. What's actually self-serving is that he insists upon proving everyone wrong to the detriment of his team. (Ironically enough proving his detractors correct in the process.) The only way for him to put the kibosh on the misconception that he has no post moves is to showcase them repeatedly. But last season, his commitment to that aim was so intense that he balked at the prospect of running lots of pick-and-rolls with Steve Nash, perhaps the best pick-and-roll point guard ever. Most athletic big men watched Nash and Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix and wished they could take Amare's place. Howard might be the first teammate in history to see playing with Nash as a burden, which only feeds the perception that Howard is, as both a basketball player and person, not very smart and self-centered to a fault.
Unless Howard retires from basketball to write intricate, Charlie Kaufman-ish screenplays, I'm not sure he's ever going to shake the perception that he's boorish. What he can do to make a lot of the hate dissipate is win. There's a lot of precedence for this. Tiger stopped being quite so despicable once it looked like he might capture another major. Through some great coincidence, LeBron became a mature adult at the exact moment he won an NBA title. Conversely, we're a lot more honest about how cold and horrible Jordan was and can be now that he's the listless, abhorrently dressed owner of the NBA's worst franchise. If Dwight Howard competes for championships, there will be conspicuously fewer stories about his antics and attitude, and the laziest media types will confuse success with virtue. If everything breaks right, we could be a year or two from a First Take segment or SI feature that explains in so many words how Dwight Howard "finally gets it."
This would be the rare case in which these stories would contain a grain of truth. In order for Howard to get where he wants to go, he needs to stop being so single-mindedly committed to the roadmap in his head. In Houston, Dwight will play alongside James Harden and Jeremy Lin, two ball-dominant guards who create most of their offense off the dribble. You know what makes creating off the dribble easier? A giant dude getting in the way of defenders and forcing them to follow him into the paint as he rolls toward the basket. This isn't complicated; Omer Asik got a lot of easy buckets last season off the pick-and-roll, and he's not nearly the athlete Howard is. The only thing that can put the brakes on this near-perfect arrangement is Howard's own stubborn commitment to proving that he can post up.
This isn't to say Howard can't be coaxed out of old habits or that he shouldn't, on occasion, park his butt on the block and demand the ball. (When he draws double teams, the Rockets have shooters he can pass to, just like in Orlando.) The thing that makes NBA offenses fun to watch is their capacity for variation and improvisation. There will be scenarios in which dumping the ball into Dwight and getting out of the way will be Houston's best offensive strategy. But Dwight needs to stop being so insistent that he knows best, because it's obvious to everyone except him that he doesn't. When the post-up-and-clear-out sets work, he can't construct some kindergarten sophistry about Look, see, we should run that play every single time! He needs to realize -- and if this sounds incredibly simple, it's because it is -- that he will be asked to do lots of different things to help his team win.
We frequently ask too much of athletes and don't give them enough room to be the person they are, however much that person might irritate us. We expect them to be perfect learners and tireless workers, to give every waking hour over to their vocations, and, by extension, to us. We have very little patience for character flaws and enigmatic tendencies. This approach isn't kind to Dwight Howard; it seems like all the chatter about his lack of improvement and abrasive personality really hurts his feelings. But instead of engaging with these criticisms, he seems to retreat further into himself, growing increasingly uncompromising and difficult to work with, like his greatest fear is finding out he might have been wrong about anything at all. He's only a reclamation project because he doesn't seem to understand that he is one.
Howard is in Houston now, and he's going to enjoy a brief honeymoon phase. A saga that lasted way too long is mercifully over, and basketball fans are talking more about Dwight Howard the Player than Dwight Howard the Migraine. It's not as if Howard needs to remake himself, but he needs to use this new opportunity to make the slightest of adjustments. If he doesn't want to listen to the media that's buried him over the past couple of years, that's reasonable, but he can at least entertain that his coaches and teammates might be right about how he should employ his considerable talents. Dwight needs to grasp that, by tamping down on his ego enough to be just a little bit flexible, he'll help himself. He can learn to play happily with Lin, Harden and the rest. We'll finally think he's fun.