DWIGHT HOWARD IS ready to "reset."
The 30-year-old center has seen his public image and reputation sour in the back half of his 12-year career. Now, with an opportunity to opt out of the $23.2 million final year of his contract with the Houston Rockets looming on July 1, he says he is looking to turn the page.
Howard sat down for an exclusive interview with ESPN.com to discuss that, his past and future in Houston; his messy exit from Orlando; why he doesn't take any elbow jumpers, and more.
ESPN: Most people believe you will opt out of your contract with Houston on July 1. Are you leaning that way?
Howard: "To be honest, I have had some conversations with close friends on what would happen if I do opt out. But I haven't really come out and said, 'I'm going to opt out and do this and that.' I just can't focus on that right now. We didn't have the kind of season we wanted, and I didn't have the kind of season I wanted and it was really upsetting to me. So my thinking is, 'I'm going to get in the gym, get my body right and when the playoffs are over take a look at everything.' As much as it may seem crazy or unbelievable that I'm not thinking about it, every time I do think about it, my mind starts racing back and forth. I don't need that kind of pressure right now. My agent (Perry Rogers) is smart. He's done this for years. Let him worry about the teams and the [contract] numbers."
ESPN: You mentioned your season in Houston didn't end the way you wanted. You have also admitted you were "disinterested" during parts of the year. Why was that?
Howard: "There were times I was disinterested because of situations that happened behind the scenes that really hurt me. It left me thinking, 'This is not what I signed up for.'"
ESPN: What specifically are you referring to?
Howard: "I felt like my role was being reduced. I went to [Rockets general manager] Daryl [Morey] and said, 'I want to be more involved.' Daryl said, 'No, we don't want you to be.' My response was, 'Why not? Why am I here?' It was shocking to me that it came from him instead of our coach. So I said to him, 'No disrespect to what you do, but you've never played the game. I've been in this game a long time. I know what it takes to be effective.'"
Morey declined comment.
ESPN: Some of your teammates in Houston didn't appreciate your "disinterest.'' Any regrets on how you handled it?
Howard: "My friends kept telling me, 'Even if you aren't getting shots, there are so many other things you can control while you are on the floor.' And they were right. I allowed not getting the ball to affect me. That's on me. As a big, someone who has been the focal point of the team, who is still young, who still has some great years in front of me, you run the floor, you sprint as hard as you can, you duck in, and still, you don't get the ball. It brings you down. It sucks the energy out of you. I had long conversations with people close to me who said, 'Dwight, this is going to make you look bad. Don't keep doing this.' So I listened to them."
Three of the NBA’s top four offensive teams have one thing in common: incredible talents as their primary ball handler.
The Warriors, Thunder and Cavaliers -- who ranked first, second and fourth, respectively, this regular season -- boast a "who's who" of brilliant scorers and playmakers.
The Spurs, meanwhile, finished third with a heavy dose of 3-pointers but without multiple perimeter drivers and scorers to get them those looks.
Just follow this map:
By getting to the middle of the floor, the Spurs can take advantage of whatever the defense is trying to take away. Both corners are one pass away. As are both wings and the top of the court. That is not the case when driving at an angle below the block.
The worst angle the Spurs take, in terms of points per chance, is when they drive to the rim from the left. That’s because they have just one left-handed player, and Manu Ginobili, 38, is not the finisher he once was.
But even when they angle from the right, they still drive middle using their left hands. It sets up the 3s that have been so crucial to their success, and it also creates better attack angles from the wing area. Defenses will over-commit to preventing those middle drives, giving the right-handed drives a better line to the rim.
In their second-round series against the Thunder, the Spurs are getting to the spots they want often enough but still have to make shots and drive the ball.
OKC's size inside is influencing those finishes at the rim, and the Spurs’ best mid-range shooter, LaMarcus Aldridge, has made 22 of his 60 shots (36.7 percent) in the last three games after shooting 33 of 44 (75 percent) in the first two games.
When the Spurs get to the middle, they have chances at the rim. If the Thunder take them away, they kick the ball out to shooters. And if those shooters are closed out "hot,” guys like Aldridge are left open as the clock winds down.
It’s a make-or-miss league, as coaches say, and that adage will likely be evident in Thursday’s Game 6.
When LeBron James plowed through a foul from Paul Millsap to finish a cutting layup late in the fourth quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 1 win over the Atlanta Hawks, observers on Twitter reacted as they had countless times before. “He’s too strong,” “He’s not human,” and “How does he do that” were common refrains among fans on Twitter, as the Cavaliers star managed to compose himself in midair to score the basket despite the contact and head to the free throw line for the first time in the game, putting the Cavs up by seven in a game they went on to win by 11.
I can’t speak to his humanity -- though there’s no evidence to suggest that he’s not a member of the human race -- but as for how he does that, that’s a slightly easier question to answer. It’s the product of hard work, and specific work, the kind of which few get to see, and even fewer have gotten to experience. I happen to be one of those few.
Now, to be clear, I am not LeBron James. I can slip on his size 50, +4 length jersey and lace up his signature LeBron XIII sneakers, but that doesn’t make me the Cavaliers star. And while I might tip the scales the same as the four-time MVP’s listed weight, he has a good 10 inches on me -- and his weight is mostly muscle, mine is decidedly not. So it's safe to say when I step onto a basketball court, no one is going to confuse me with the 12-time All-Star. But for one day at All-Star Weekend, I got a chance to feel what it was like to be LeBron James on a basketball court, thanks to Nike’s “Bring Your Game” workout program. It gave me incredible insight into how he gets his body and game ready for those powerful finishes at the basket that leave fans in awe.
James takes a lot of punishment during a game. He's averaging 6.5 free-throw attempts per game this season -- good for 15th in the league -- and that doesn't account for all the times he drives to the rim into contact without earning a whistle. Since he came into the league in 2003-04, no player has attempted more free-throws than James (8,221 in the regular season).
More than just getting to the line, James' ability to finish through contact is unparalleled, as he demonstrated again Monday night. But despite James' obvious natural talents, that kind of finishing ability doesn't come without hard work, much of which came in the form of resistance band training, the biggest focus of the LeBron-designed workout. It started with building upper-body strength in every direction by pushing or pulling against a resistance band.
I was skeptical of why this was part of the workout rather than more traditional weight lifting. Then, I started doing it. The side-to-side twists in particular mimicked the motion of creating space with a defender draped all over you, without the added physical stress of actually having an opponent hitting you during practice; a workout specifically designed to prepare you for a beating without actually making you take one. And for someone who has played more than 2,500 minutes more than any other player over the past six seasons, avoiding unnecessary added stress on his body is critical.
After finishing the core portion of the workout, I had to crossover dribble through a rope ladder for about 15 feet, then drive to the basket and finish a layup, all while having someone pulling against me with the band the entire time. The first time I went up for one of these layups, I knew exactly how it felt to do so with a defender pulling you down, doing anything he can to keep you from drawing an and-1. And as difficult as it was to do so from the right side, it was exponentially harder from the left. And the workout featured both sides equally -- which is why James is just as comfortable driving and finishing in either direction in crunch time. Doing this specific exercise time and time again showed me just how much work James puts into what looks like just a natural ability in a game -- and reminded me that I really need to work on my left hand.
James does this specific workout at a speed and intensity I couldn’t possibly match, just to prepare him for situations like the end of Game 1, where the difference between finishing a layup and just going to the line for two free throws -- where James is shooting just 73.1 percent for the season and 74.4 percent for his career -- can mean the difference between winning and losing.
I’m never going to win a game by finishing through a Paul Millsap foul, absorbing the contact while somehow juggling the ball in midair before putting it in the basket. But having been through that workout showed that even someone as talented as James needs to put in an incredible amount of work before stepping onto the court. And even when I put those sneakers on now, I still know I’m not LeBron James -- and not just because my size 11 feet would slide right out of his size 15 sneakers.
In early April, news that Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey would be evaluated at season's end along with interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff opened the door for opponents of analytics to be critical of the situation in Houston.
Morey has been vocal in his belief that analytics help teams make smarter basketball decisions. With the Rockets struggling to make the playoffs this season and putting up little fight against a Warriors team dealing with Stephen Curry's injury situation, it's to be expected that vultures would strike. The Charles Barkleys of the world can continue arguing that Morey’s lack of a championship during his tenure is proof that analytics do not work in basketball. But those sentiments aren't worth worrying about anymore. (Note: I know Daryl and he has always been very generous to me, so I do have personal concern for him and his family.)
It is not that the vultures won’t be out -- they will be out in force. But using analytics in NBA front offices and on the benches is essentially a settled matter. Those who are not comfortable with analytics or who dislike Morey personally will say the same uninformed things, but the truth is that analytics, as part of how basketball operations work in the NBA, are here to stay.
While Morey was an early adopter of analytics, he is no longer the only GM incorporating advanced data into decision-making. Far from it.
Consider the following:
- Ten years ago, four or five teams had either one full-time or one part-time consultant. Today, all 30 NBA teams have at least one full-time staffer whose primary responsibility is analytics, and most teams have an analytics staff that consist of at least three full-timers.
- Ten years ago, most analysts were either part-time consultants or had titles such as basketball operations analyst; now, teams have VPs and directors of analytics who manage a staff.
- The San Antonio Spurs, who have been a leader in the NBA in using analytics, recently added to their robust analytics staff by hiring Kirk Goldsberry at the VP level.
- Of the five teams given the best chance to win the championship this year by ESPN's Basketball Power Index, all have made significant investments into analytics and utilize them in front office and coaching decisions.
- Salaries for analytic personnel are growing significantly. While teams previously demanded analytics specialists work for peanuts, recent hirings have demonstrated that salaries have increased significantly.
- Ten years ago, players were mostly discussed in terms of points, rebounds and assists per game; now, efficiency numbers are used commonly in NBA offices and by fans.
- The most glaring data point that illustrates the impact of analytics on the NBA is 3-point attempts. Three-point shots were identified early by analysts as an underutilized tool because they were far more efficient than midrange 2-point shots. Since the 1999-2000 season, 3-point attempts have increased by 55 percent. Even after subtracting all of the Warriors' attempts this season, the NBA set a single-season record for 3-point attempts in 2015-16.
The anti-analytics crowd will argue that you can’t make basketball decisions by data alone. That is a false argument. No proponent of analytics -- Morey included -- would suggest that using only data is any way to build a team. Coaches, scouts, and general managers have a wealth of vital information and expertise that is not reflected in the data.
At its core, good analytics provide another piece of information, and most hyper-competitive front office personnel and coaches have learned that having more information than your opponent can provide a competitive advantage.
The state of analytics in the NBA is strong, with no small credit belonging to Morey himself.
THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS commandeered the Bristol Lounge in Boston's Four Seasons Hotel to nosh on lobster tacos, New York strip steaks and crispy fried chicken wings while they monitored their NBA playoff future.
It was April 23, 2015, and the newly configured big three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had just edged the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, which left the Cavs one win from a sweep.
James had retired to his room to host a small group of friends while his teammates relaxed and glanced at snippets of their next potential opponent, the Chicago Bulls, whose overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks flickered on television screens throughout the lounge.
The Cavaliers' mood was light and lively. As the clock ticked toward midnight, the Cavs turned their attention to the climax of the Golden State-New Orleans game. Irving, Iman Shumpert and James Jones whooped as the Warriors charged back from a 20-point deficit to steal an overtime victory behind a series of outlandish Steph Curry bombs. Curry checked out with 40 points, which prompted a family member of the Cleveland entourage to declare, "Maybe you guys should start paying attention to them."
Irving was having none of that. Looking ahead just one round to Chicago made him queasy enough; projecting all the way to the Finals against Golden State seemed reckless, arrogant even. Although his team was in control of the series against the Celtics -- no team in NBA history had come back from a 3-0 deficit -- Irving couldn't shake his uneasiness about finishing the job.
"We're not done here," Irving reprimanded. "[Brad] Stevens is damn smart. He's coming at us with something new, so we better be ready.''
Even though the Celtics had been beaten by an average of 9.7 points in the series, the youngest head coach in the NBA lingered in Cleveland's psyche, Irving says, because Stevens already had accomplished what every coach sets out to do when his club is outmatched: prevent the deeper, more experienced, more talented team from settling into a rhythm.