WASHINGTON—Dwight Howard sure does know how to say the right things. “The mindset is winning,” the three-time Defensive Player of the Year said in his introductory press conference, explaining why the Wizards were the right fit. This is where he wants to be, he claims. He plans on playing for eight more seasons and wants them all to be in a Wizards uniform.
He claims to have known that they were from the beginning. He already loves the city. He has family and friends in town. He even brought them to the press conference. Nobody, not even the Warriors, could pry Howard from the grip of Washington, D.C. “I really thought about them,” he said, before taking a quick pause to gather his thoughts. “But once John [Wall] sent me that message, I was like ‘Man, I’m going to be a Wizard.’”
Howard knows how to captivate a room with his words—he always has. This time last season he was half-heartedly joking about the Hornets beating the Warriors. This time around, he’s talking about doing whatever the team needs to win. Post-ups? Don’t worry about them. He wants to set screens, run hard, block shots and dunk on heads. Those are the things he loves about the game of basketball, he says. But you couldn’t tell watching in Charlotte last season.
From the outside looking in, the former All-Star seemed to be a burden for the Hornets. He clashed with players like Nicolas Batum on the court and has been called selfish off it. Every year we seem to go through the same rehabilitation process with Howard: His current team lets him walk or trades him for next to nothing, he says he’s ready to take another step forward, and he’s gone again by June.
I’m not here to tell you that this time around is going to be any different. I’m not here to tell you that Howard won’t be a Wizard over the eight years, either. I can’t tell you what he truly believes, just what he’s said about the Wizards to this point. And, if he does believe in what he is saying, he believes the Wizards are a title contender. He believes they’re the most talented team he’s played on and he believes he can be the best he has ever been with this team.
Howard described Wall as a “different animal” when compared to the other point guards he’s played with. He loves Bradley Beal’s talent and described him as a player who is “rising” still at just 25 years old. He lauded Otto Porter Jr.’s 3-point shooting and praised Kelly Oubre Jr. for his high energy. He believes in the roster, to say the least.
The locker room is another story. Howard is aware of his past and his perception. If he comes in demanding shots, to be the guy, this won’t work. But he spoke of dropping his ego and letting the team operate organically and functionally, both inside and outside of the locker room. The desire to win is what should drive the locker room, he said, but that’s something he has to prove.
Like Howard, the Wizards are stagnant. They’ve peaked at the second round of the playoffs despite the plethora of talent they have on the roster because of depth, health and in-house spats. And like Howard, when the team plays the right way, they look unstoppable. They can play fast, they can play slow, they can play big, they can play small. When they’re off? They get blown out by Howard’s old Hornets by 30-plus points.
Howard is the right fit, theoretically, for the Wizards. He can do the things that the Wizards need – he’s big, athletic and can protect the paint even in today’s evolved game. The Wizards haven’t had a real lob threat in the frontcourt since JaVale McGee left in 2012.
So maybe Howard’s right. Maybe, all along, he has been destined to be a Wizard. The back half of his career has been marred with inconsistency and lacking substance. Maybe united, they can figure out how to become consistent. But he could be wrong, too.
Saying the right things isn’t even half of the battle. There are going to be cold nights, on the road in Sacramento where the game doesn’t feel like it matters. Will Howard still set screens? Will he still run hard? Will he still block shots? Only time will tell.