Better results for Howard in Houston?
HOUSTON -- Technically Dwight Howard is not an equity partner in the Houston Rockets, he's the highest-paid employee. He's described his long-term commitment to his new team as a $30 million bet, the difference between the deal with the Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers' offer, being that he's headed for a championship.
As the Rockets begin this highly-anticipated season, their best hope of proving Howard right is that he acts more like an investor than a vendor who simply fulfills his contractual obligations. Otherwise the Rockets might find themselves in the same position where the Lakers ended up in April.
Amid the media day chaos Friday at the Toyota Center, there was nothing but smiles among the Rockets players and staff. "Everyone is stoked," is the way James Harden described his mood.
The same emotions, though, were flowing last year at Lakers media day when Howard, some conjectured, could be part of one of the greatest starting lineups of all time.
In October of 2012, Howard talked about the need for his star teammates to come together for the good of the team so they could win.
"Everyone has to sacrifice something for us to win a championship," Howard said. "Everyone on this team is willing to do that."
What did Howard say on the first day of his first season as a Rocket?
"We all have to sacrifice something in order to be a championship team," he said. "Everybody is on board with that."
The point here is not to catch Howard by parsing his clichés. The point is the Rockets face some of the same issues the Lakers faced a year ago. If they don't learn from the Lakers' mistakes and, most importantly, get a different level of cooperation and commitment from Howard, they could repeat the Lakers' fate.
Just as the Lakers were, the Rockets are a returning playoff team that is facing a significant transition to fitting Howard in. They have an All-Star shooting guard who previously dominated the ball. They have a point guard who prefers playing pick-and-roll to dumping the ball inside and spotting up for a shot. They have a 7-footer they want to play alongside Howard, not be his backup.
The 2012-13 Lakers were undoubtedly derailed by injuries and Howard himself never seemed to be 100 percent as he recovered from serious back surgery. But ultimately, it was a team that had mismatched parts that weren't ever fully motivated to work together. That wasn't just on Howard. There were plenty of games when his Laker teammates just ignored their All-Star center, but he was the centerpiece of the dysfunction.
The pieces in Houston aren't that different. Last season the Rockets thrived by running and by dribbling ... a lot. Harden was a one-man wrecking ball running the floor and pressuring defenses off the dribble, racking up free throws at historic rates. Jeremy Lin is a pick-and-roll point guard who thrived in the Mike D'Antoni system in New York that Howard loathed in Los Angeles.
Howard has made it clear through words and actions that he much prefers to get the ball dumped into him in the post with shooters around him that he can select from. When Howard wasn't verbally longing for that style he played in Orlando, he was showing it by coming off screens like a wet noodle as he just went through the motions at times.
"If we're going to be successful, and this goes for any team, the top players have to figure out how to play together," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "There is only one ball. You have to share it. It's embracing playing with other good players. Since I've been in the league, over 30 years, it is embracing playing together. When they don't, it's like two positives [charges] going the opposite direction and it doesn't work."
But there are two crucial differences between last year's Lakers and these dreaming Rockets. They are the core reasons the Rockets have a chance to get a different Howard and a different result.
The first is Howard is more committed here, or at least he should be. He wasn't traded to Houston, he stuck his neck out and became the highest-profile player to ever leave the Lakers to be in this situation. For two years Howard griped and waffled about his situation when he didn't have control and it took a huge toll on his reputation and his game. His long-awaited control got him to this point and these teammates and that's the basis he plans to use to rebuild his career.
That choice included McHale, whom Howard praised after he made his free agent decision. Howard asked the Magic to fire Stan Van Gundy and then asked the Lakers to hire Phil Jackson. Neither happened, and Howard ended up wanting out of both places.
Now he's married himself to McHale and that alone should give his coach a fighting chance going into this season. It's not just the $30 million. Howard isn't renting in Houston; he's a full partner of his own doing and that changes the dynamic.
The other major factor is Houston's roster is younger and has a completely different personality than Los Angeles'. The Lakers had one of the oldest teams in the league with their core players all in their 30s. Last season the Rockets were the NBA's youngest team and Howard, who has been attacked for his maturity issues, prefers being around younger players whom he can relate to.
Howard is right that all championship contenders have to sacrifice, but it certainly is easier to do that when a player likes his teammates and coach. It seemed rather obvious last year that was not the case with the Lakers.
"For any team to be successful, you have to have a great environment," Howard said. "If you get caught up in the bad stuff, it messes you up as a person and a player. I think some of that happened with me last year. I allowed the bad stuff that happened to really sit in my head and it pushed myself away from people. That's not who I am. "
Over the summer, the Rockets had organized workouts in Los Angeles and then in Aspen, Colo., which Howard made an offseason base this year. He described the early chemistry with his teammates as being like his days with the 2008-09 Magic, a team that was very close and made the Finals.
"Dwight is always joking around and having fun," Lin said. "We're all younger in some respects. He's been in the league for a while but he's still young in terms of his age."
That sort of attitude wore thin quickly with the Lakers' veterans who all knew they were running out of time in their chase for a title. In Houston, there's a sense this is just the start of a run. The difference in mood is already palpable. It is clear that Howard performs better in a more positive environment, and that's the way things look to be headed in Houston for the foreseeable future.
Howard is convinced all that will add up to a flipping of the script.
"You don't want to work in a bad place," Howard said. "What happened in L.A. was just unfortunate. We were plagued with injuries last season, and things didn't happen the way we wanted them to happen. It's over and done with, we can't go back. I'm in a better mentally, physically and spiritually now so I'm looking forward to this season."