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Sunday, December 2, 2012
Updated: December 3, 3:44 AM ET
Different kind of pressure on Howard

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- By now, Dwight Howard has repeated the line so many times you don't have to even ask a question. Just say "Orlando" and he'll say, "business decision."

As in, asking the Magic to trade him to the Brooklyn Nets, and then to the Los Angeles Lakers, was entirely a business decision, so can you all please try and understand and stop hating me?

He's right, too. Leaving Orlando for the bright lights of Los Angeles makes him infinitely more marketable to advertisers and opens up a whole world of possibilities in the entertainment industry.

But that's really only half the story. The half that doesn't hurt as much. The half that's personal to both the city of Orlando and Dwight Howard.

Because the truth is that deep down Howard knew he'd never reach his potential as a player and a person in Orlando.

Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard has struggled at the free-throw line, but there are bigger issues at stake as he tries to take his game to the next level.

The Orlando Magic would never be able to push him the way he needed to be pushed. To challenge him the way Kobe Bryant has so far. To make him earn it, not just yearn for it.

There's a different kind of pressure that comes with getting what you asked for. If Howard couldn't win in Orlando, it was on the Magic to make it work. To bring someone else in, to get him more help.

If he can't win in Los Angeles, it's on him. There's nowhere else to go now. No greener grass, no better place to win. And so all his shortcomings as a player come into focus now. All the things Orlando loved him too much to criticize him for, all the things the Magic were afraid to say but still needed to, all that is out in the open now. Howard has no choice but to work on them.

His abysmal free-throw shooting, his sometimes-unpolished post game, his lack of a mid-range game to keep defenses honest. All of those things were glaring to everyone in the building Sunday night in the Magic's 113-103 win over the Lakers.

Howard has never been good from the free-throw line (58.4 percent for his career). But he never has been this bad either. After his ugly 9-for-21 effort Sunday, he's shooting just 46.5 percent this season, easily a career low.

"He makes those free throws and the guy will be averaging 30 points a night," Bryant said, not exactly shying away from the issue. "So that's the thing people try to attack with him and once he gets that down, there's just going to be no stopping him."

It's easy to read too much into a thing like poor free-throw shooting. Sometimes a player just gets the yips, can't straighten himself out and it has absolutely nothing to do with anything else going on in his life.

But it's hard to ignore the fact that Howard's nosedive at the line has coincided with the ugly process that finally forced the Magic to trade him. Howard had shot at least 58.6 percent in each of his first seven NBA seasons. The last two seasons, as he has dealt with the ill-will from fans in Orlando and pretty much around the NBA, he has shot 49.1 percent and now 46.5 percent.

So far, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni seems to be taking a soft approach to the situation, downplaying its importance to take pressure off Howard, and supporting him by refusing to take him out of the game when teams start hacking him mercilessly.

"I could take him out. But do you want to do that?" D'Antoni said after Sunday's game, explaining why he'd sit Pau Gasol at the end of the game instead of taking Howard out (he made just 7-of-14 fourth-quarter free throws).

"To me, he's fine. I don't want to talk too much about it because you take him out and that's drawing a big line. Like, 'Oh, we're taking you out every time they're going to hack you.' I don't want to get into that. He'll make his foul shots, he makes them in practice. He'll get through this. He's 9-for-21, that doesn't kill us."

After the game, D'Antoni made a point of speaking to Howard in the locker room. Neither man shared what was said, but it was clear the coach took a comforting tone as both had small grins afterward.

"Everybody is going to have something to say about us every day," Howard said. "We can't allow something to affect what we do on the court. … The guys in the locker room are the ones who are going to change it."

That statement right there is probably the biggest difference in the Los Angeles version of Howard.

It's on him now. Winning, making this work, fixing his weak spots, holding the team together, that's his job, not management's.

It may have seemed as if he had that kind of responsibility in Orlando because he was the unquestioned face of the franchise and focal point of everything the Magic did on the court.

But there's a difference between being the favorite son and being the man.

Orlando raised Dwight Howard. That's why the city reacted so emotionally when he chose to leave.

"It's like LeBron leaving Cleveland," Magic forward Glen Davis said. "If you think about it, we're the only professional sport there really, and he's been there for a long time. They adopted him as their child."

But to grow into a man, to develop into the player he and everybody else knows is inside him, he had to go to a place that would push him. Where he isn't immediately comfortable, where the franchise wasn't just handed to him upon arrival.

That's his challenge now. And oddly enough, Bryant had a similar one at about the same mark of his career too, when Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami and it was on him, and him alone, to lead.

It was what he wanted, what he needed to elevate his game to the next level, but it also took some time to adjust.

"The pressure is on me and Dwight to really perform well," Bryant said, mincing no words. "We'll pick up for everybody else's mistakes or whatever it may be. He and I have to perform at a really, really high level night in and night out."