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Dwight Howard can push the Wizards to the next level, or right into a rebuild

Detroit Pistons v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

NBA vagabond Dwight Howard is coming to DC next season, and while signing him is risky for the Wizards, it’s the kind of move they needed to make because Howard is a wild card. If things go right, he could be a dominant figure on defense and the boards, and an athletic finisher around the basket.

But, there are an array of ways things could wrong, and he could be just the wrong personality for an already fragile locker room, and end up pushing the team into a season-long cold war of passive-aggressive dysfunction.

Entering his 15th season, Howard remains an enigma. At 6-11, with outlandish strength, speed and leaping ability, Howard hit the genetic lottery. But, the trouble with Howard was never his ability to play the game. Rather, the problem has been in his mind and in his behavior, both on and off the court.

Despite the freakish athleticism, despite the dunks and rebounds and blocked shots, despite everything, when training camp begins the Wizards will be Howard’s sixth NBA team, and fourth team in four years. To recap:

  • Howard began his career in Orlando, and led the Magic to the NBA Finals in his fifth season. The team endured his ceaseless vacillation about whether he wanted in or out of Orlando, and they finally traded him to the Lakers.
  • He lasted one season in Los Angeles where he couldn’t get along with Kobe Bryant or the coaching staff or his other teammates. His performance was somewhat hampered by back surgery the previous season, and he didn’t mesh on the court with the likes of Pau Gasol, and an aging and injured Steve Nash.
  • Howard signed a four-year deal with a player option in Houston where he again struggled with relationships and his role on the floor. In the end, the Rockets were happy to let him walk so they could have cap space, peace in the locker room, and playing time for Clint Capela. As Lee Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated, it was one thing to have a tense relationship with the cantankerous Bryant, but quite another to struggle with “the mild-mannered” James Harden.
  • After leaving Houston, Howard signed a three-year contract with Atlanta, but traded him to Charlotte for salary ballast after just one season.
  • He only lasted one season in Charlotte before the Hornets opted to make the same move as Atlanta, and trade him to Brooklyn for essentially nothing. The Nets didn’t want him either. They initiated buyout talks, and made Howard a free agent.

Despite his past issues with teams, current and former NBA coaches I spoke with said, someone will always be willing to give it a shot with a talent like Howard.

“With that size and ability, you have to take the chance,” said one former Eastern Conference coach. “You know he’s had problems at other places, but you’re just hoping he’ll buy into your concept and your culture.”

Coaches agree the on-court prescription is simple: get Howard to defend with intensity and attention to detail, and to focus his offensive efforts on transition opportunities, setting good screens, making strong cuts to the basket, and put-backs. They also agree getting him to play that way is the challenge.

Last season in Charlotte, more than a third of Howard’s possessions were post-ups. Unfortunately for the Hornets, Howard ranked in the 39th percentile in post-up efficiency. The problem: turnovers and missed shots.

“Go back to the beginning he was terrible in the post,” said an Eastern Conference assistant. “Patrick [Ewing] helped him, but he was still turnover prone because he tends to jump when he passes. That’s a big no-no.”

Howard’s coaches through the years have sought to satiate Howard’s desire to be a post-up focal point by establishing him as a post threat. Their thinking: Howard can attract double teams and make life easier for his teammates on the perimeter.

Unfortunately, Howard has been neither an efficient scorer nor an effective passer in post-ups, and the league learned years ago how to turn Howard’s beloved post-ups against him and his team.

“What we did to him was have our five push him out,” said one coach, who has been out of the league for several seasons. “Then we’d double on the first dribble. When I saw him this year, he was still having trouble with that one.”

On the defensive end, Howard is effective against post-ups and isolations, but struggled versus pick-and-roll. NBA teams defend PNR with a variety of techniques, but Howard does a poor job executing any of them.

“He kinda just floats in no-man’s land,” said one coach. “No matter what the coverage is supposed to be. He ends up out of position a lot. But, a lot of big guys have a hard time in pick-and-roll.”

Coaches, scouts and former players agree that even with flaws, Howard remains a productive player.

“Nobody’s perfect,” said one former front office executive. “Everyone has something you have to work around. Maybe with Dwight they change their coverages so he can hang back. Maybe you come up with stuff that you call post-ups but have him moving so you’re not relying on him as a decision-maker. Or maybe you run some post-ups for him to make him happy so he’ll play better on defense.”

In conversations with NBA coaches, former executives, and current and former players, several thought signing Howard was a good move for the Wizards.

“He’s a perfect fit with Wall,” said a former assistant coach. “Big, athletic. He has some issues, but at that price? You have to give it a shot.”

Others, especially current and former players, were more cautious.

“There’s a reason Atlanta and Charlotte got rid of him after a year,” said one. “There’s a reason they couldn’t get anything for him. His teammates get tired of his act. Everyone does.”

Another voiced concern about adding Howard to the Wizards locker room in particular.

“I don’t think I’d have done that in Washington,” said the player. “Those guys already have some issues, and it wasn’t all March [Marcin Gortat].”

In my analysis, at least in terms of on-court performance, Howard is worth a shot. Assuming he can stave off the dreaded age-related decline (he turns 33 in December) for another year or two, Howard should be an upgrade on Gortat, who was most definitely aging. Howard’s historical comparables are mostly Hall of Fame types who were productive into their late thirties, including Artis Gilmore, Robert Parish, Moses Malone, and Bob Lanier.

But, those guys also weren’t net negatives in the locker room, and that matters. The NBA is an intense workplace, and withdrawing from conflict and refusing to communicate as Howard does can create big problems that disrupt team cohesion and lead to losses instead of wins.

While this isn’t a move I would have made, it’s a worthwhile attempt for the Wizards to make. It introduces a variability they desperately needed as they seek to get off the mediocrity treadmill. If Howard figures out how to be an okay teammate and plays to his capabilities, the Wizards could make a significant leap in the standings. If he alienates teammates and insists on making the same mistakes he’s been making, he could cause the record to fall and usher in even greater change.

Either way, it should be interesting to watch.