Sixers

Howard's winding path has led to interesting playoff questions for Sixers

Sixers

The generous interpretation of Dwight Howard’s one-game suspension for being assessed 16 technical fouls was that his reputation had obfuscated officials’ judgement.

Long known as an instigator, Howard had apparently clapped in a way deemed unsportsmanlike in Milwaukee. In Miami, he’d been confronted by a 40-year-old Udonis Haslem determined to create fireworks in his first playing time of the season.

“It’s like the kid that keeps being late for class and then finally he actually has a real reason,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said last Friday, “but no one believes him.”

Inevitably, Howard’s history colors his present. He entered the NBA as a teenage No. 1 pick, became a Hall of Fame-caliber player and rubbed quite a few teammates the wrong way in the process. For a long time, he didn’t seem to embody the seriousness many fans (and teammates) like to see from their stars.

Furkan Korkmaz wasn't sure what to expect after learning the Sixers had signed Howard in free agency.

“Dwight is a really good guy, for real," Korkmaz said Wednesday. “In the beginning of the season when I first met with him, I was really impressed, because Dwight Howard … sometimes big stars, superstars, you’re a little bit afraid of what kind of character they have. It takes a lot of time to figure that out. But I think Dwight was perfect for us.”

 

At 35 years old, Howard still exudes humor and a youthful spirit, but his position has changed. He’s now the veteran backup center that youngsters want to work out with and ask questions. 

Paul Reed, the Sixers’ 21-year-old rookie power forward, attended Howard’s basketball camp in Orlando, Florida, as a kid. The two now practice outside shooting together.

Howard went 5 for 20 from three-point range this season. For his career, he’s only 14 for 88 from long distance; it’s a part of the NBA that’s relatively unfamiliar to him. Both his joy and his instinct to teach were evident as he described a long-distance make from the Sixers’ May 8 win over the Pistons at Wells Fargo Center. 

“When I caught it in the corner, usually I’ll go ahead and rush the shot,” he said. “But as of late me and Paul Reed have actually been in the gym a lot shooting. He was like, ‘Dwight, why are you shooting so slow?’ I said, ‘Well, in the game, guys are not going to rush out and treat me as a three-point threat. So if I get a chance to shoot a three, I’m going to really take my time, get my feet set and knock down the shot.’ And I had one of those tonight, and it was a good shot. 

“It felt good. The crowd, the energy, everything was like, man! I wish I could’ve gotten a Frosty for making the three. I think that we should talk to Wendy’s about that. We should go in the office and tell Wendy’s, ‘If Dwight makes a three, Frostys for everybody.’”

Howard has had many occasions to celebrate over the last two seasons. He won his first championship last year with the Lakers and appeared in all but three games for the top-seeded Sixers. His 17.5 rebounds per 36 minutes led the league. 

The most optimistic outlook for Howard is that he’s figured out how to blend all the best aspects of who he currently is as a player and locker-room personality.

Everything might not be peachy in the postseason, though. 

For one, it’s obvious that Howard and Ben Simmons is a suboptimal on-court pairing. The Sixers’ net rating when they shared the floor in the regular season was minus-10.4, per Cleaning the Glass. Lineups with Simmons and Howard tended to struggle in most areas besides grabbing offensive rebounds and drawing free throws. There’s ample reason for Rivers to be reluctant to play the duo together much in the playoffs.

And, while Howard’s strength and leaping ability are rare for someone in his mid-30s, his game is not that of the modern NBA center who’s agile, defensively switchable and a legitimate shooting threat. 

 

If the Sixers play the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, will Bobby Portis burn them by draining open threes? If the Knicks try a few minutes with Julius Randle as a small-ball five in a second-round series, is the right response for the Sixers to sit Howard and counter with Simmons at center? 

Howard preached about sacrifice in his first session with Philadelphia reporters back in November. To his credit, all evidence indicates that he’s stayed true to a team-first mentality outside of those pesky technicals.

He’s chatted often with George Hill in the designated cool-down zone next to the Sixers’ bench where players are not required to wear masks. 

“Just things that we see, how we can improve ourselves on the floor with our spacing and pick-and-rolls,” Howard said of his discussions with Hill. “How to get Shake (Milton) easier buckets, how to get all our guys easier shots and the angles that they want on their screens. So our conversations are always about how we can improve as basketball players.

“Me and George have been playing for a very long time, so we understand the game and we know that we’re playing (with) guys who are really just starting to blossom and open up as players. So for us, it’s trying to find ways to communicate to them effectively on how to just make each other greater."

By competently spelling Joel Embiid and staying out of trouble with the officials, Howard can help the Sixers win playoff games and series. 

What might be most remarkable about him is that, despite his 17-season track record, there's little certainty about how he'll fare.

It's an important question for the Sixers, though. Problems may very well arise with Howard in the playoffs, but insufficient experience won't be one of them.