HOUSTON -- It was Wednesday night in the stillness of the Houston Rockets locker room where Dwight Howard sat at his locker, head slightly down, voice level the exact opposite of an onstage Chris Rock.
In answering reporters' questions, Howard sounded like a man beaten down by the system. A system designed for smaller men to shoot farther from the rim and penetrate toward the basket only to kick the ball out to shooters.
In what could be his final days with the Rockets, Howard is a man with 15,549 points scored on 9,560 shot attempts in an 11-year NBA career. Yet he’s become an afterthought.
Maybe even a 6-foot-11 dinosaur at the tender age of 30.
With the Rockets entering their final 10 games of a season with playoff hopes hanging on every game, Howard has become a seemingly insignificant part of an offense in desperate need of someone else.
James Harden, the main ball handler and Houston’s leading scorer, is second in the league in scoring at 28.5. He leads the league in minutes (2,719), field-goal attempts (1,387), missed field-goal attempts (794) and free throws attempted (747).
There's nothing wrong with Harden, a natural, physical scorer, in taking over games. Of late, however, he’s been tired and now he’s nursing a sprained left ankle. In Wednesday’s game against the Utah Jazz, Harden was bent over several times just trying to catch his breath or maybe deal with the pain of a sore wheel.
When the Utah Jazz attacked Harden, the explosiveness just wasn’t the same but he keeps going anyway. Rockets GM Daryl Morey noted recently that the competitor in Harden won’t allow him to give up the ball. It’s a trait Morey likes, and he loves Harden's desire to win and do whatever is necessary.
Howard wants to win too, and earlier in the season said he believes the Rockets can win a title.
Of late, however, Howard doesn’t command the ball in the post like some centers of old would require. The Rockets rarely run set offensive plays for Howard where he can post up a defender and do his work.
On the season, Howard is averaging 14.3 points per game, his lowest average since his rookie year when he averaged 12 a game with Orlando. His 8.8 field-goal attempts per game are the lowest since his rookie year, when he had 8.3.
In the last 10 games, Howard is averaging just 7.9 field-goal attempts per game with a 65.8 field-goal percentage.
Despite the high shooting percentage, the Rockets don’t look for him. Instead, Howard gets his points off missed shots and lobs at the basket.
After a stunning loss to the Jazz, Howard was asked three separate times whether he should get more touches.
“We just got to find ways to win games,” he said.
Would more touches ease the pressures off Harden?
“I would like to get a win.”
Want more touches? “Got to get wins, that’s the only thing that matters.”
The men in charge of helping Howard get more touches are the coaches and guards.
Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said Howard is doing all the other things -- blocking shots, rebounding and defending the rim -- to win games. In the loss to the Jazz, Howard made the right defensive play moving from the rim to defend the offensive player who was charging at the basket. But in the unfortunate ways of the game, Howard left Derrick Favors open and the late rotation allowed him to score the go-ahead basket on an uncontested dunk.
“I’d like to see him more involved,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s doing all the other things, defensively he’s a monster. He’s got to get rewarded for doing those things. I think there’s times where we can get him the ball in his spots and we can work on that a little bit more.”
Harden has said Howard needs more touches, but it seems the chemistry between the two men just isn’t there.
In a close loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Harden had the ball with a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds. When a double-team clamped down, Harden threw a lob pass to Howard, who couldn’t reach it cleanly. Howard attempted to tip the ball to Jason Terry in the corner but failed.
“I put it normally to where Dwight could grab it,” Harden said. “It is a tough play.”
The execution is lacking and one wonders when Howard decides to enter free agency this summer whether he wants to deal with a lack of touches for another three-to-four years with the Rockets. Howard won’t discuss his free- agency status, but it was clear during the trade deadline he wasn’t happy his name was the center of trade talks.
Houston almost dealt him to Milwaukee and held discussions with several other clubs including Charlotte. The Rockets have a young center, Clint Capela, and a big man coach, Clifford Ray, so there is a value in the position.
Is there a value in Howard?
Among centers in the NBA, Howard is 10th in touches at 55.2 percent and leads centers in post touches at 8.8 per game. A majority of these touches are on misplays, as Howard’s average distance per field goal attempt is just 2.5 feet, the shortest of his career.
The Rockets say the right things about Howard when it comes to getting him the ball. Sometimes it sounds like it comes with a disclaimer.
“Just trying to (execute) whether its James Harden handling or James getting to the sweet spot,” point guard Patrick Beverley said. “Just trying to find a way to get him and Dwight the ball and for them to make the right plays at the end.”
These final 10 games might tell so much about how the Rockets feel about Howard and how much he really cares about them.