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Dwight Howard feels his game is still changing and adapting to NBA's new era

Dwight Howard feels his game is still changing and adapting to NBA's new era

Dwight Howard has the potential to solve several of the Wizards' problems and add new dimensions to their team, most notably with his ability to block shots and play above the rim on offense. But, much like his predecessor, Marcin Gortat, Howard has shortcomings in his game that are increasingly magnified as playing styles in the NBA change.

Howard has been living in the paint since he was drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic in 2004, but much has changed about the center position in the decade-and-a-half since. Many teams favor a different brand of big men, ones that can shoot and guard smaller players on defense. 

The Wizards have a stated goal to play more positionless basketball, to have lineups where they can switch from spot to spot and match the versatility of their opponents. Howard doesn't exactly help that cause.

He himself knows the game has changed.

"When I came into the league, I was playing against the [Shaquille O'Neals], the Alonzo Mournings and Jermaine O'Neals. It was more of the physical, I'm going to see who the strongest guy in the paint. It was like an arm wrestling match for the big guys. Nowadays, it's not the same game," Howard said.

Howard, though, believes he is still adding to his game, even at 32 years old. He has posted many videos on Instagram of his workouts this offseason and some have included shooting threes and off the dribble jumpers around the free throw line.

Doing something on a practice court is very different than bringing it to an actual NBA game. He may never get to showcase those skills for the Wizards, but that won't stop him from trying.

"It's grown since I've been in the NBA," he said. "It's evolve or die or get left behind. For me, I plan on playing this game for another good eight years. In order for me to do that, I really have to change my game. It started last season. Last season was probably the most confident I've been in my career as far as just doing everything on the floor; handling the ball, shooting, being more of an offensive threat in iso situations and stuff like that. I'm going to continue to work on that stuff."

Howard attempted only seven threes last season and that tied a career-high. It's unlikely to expect his range to even stretch past the free throw line, given his track record and the Wizards' litany of outside shooters.

It will be up to head coach Scott Brooks how Howard is used and he thinks the eight-time All-Star is just fine the way he is.

"Definitely,  the game has changed, but a lot of times with that change it still remains the same. You need a big and when you have a talented big, you use him," Brooks said. "He brings a skillset and a talent that only a few guys in the league that can do."

Brooks went on to mention how a lot of the best big men in the league are young and still learning, perhaps a reference to Joel Embiid of the Sixers, who many figure to be a force in the Eastern Conference for years to come. In the East, there are a host of versatile young bigs between Kristaps Porzingis of the Knicks, Myles Turner of the Pacers and Lauri Markkanen of the Bulls. The Western Conference has even more of them between Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, Karl-Anthony Towns of the Timberwolves, Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets and DeAndre Ayton of the Suns.

Those players represent a new age of basketball where big men can shoot threes, switch onto forwards and guards if needed and even attack the paint off the dribble. Some call them unicorns and they are phasing out guys who play Howard's style.

Brooks has spoken glowingly about his evolving roster in recent years and the newfound ability to play with small-ball lineups. He has talked about going even smaller in the future as the team continues to add players with positional versatility like Tomas Satoransky and Troy Brown, Jr.

Howard may throw a wrench into those plans. For Brooks, the biggest adjustment will be on defense.

"The challenge is how you're going to be able to guard smaller guys, but the smaller players have trouble guarding smaller players. There's a lot of good shooters in this league that open up a lot of difficult situations to be in. My job is to figure it out and his job is to perform in a night in and night out basis," Brooks said.

Offensively, Howard will likely be tasked with simply taking what Gortat did to the next level. He is better than Gortat at finishing around the rim and can probably take on a larger scoring role in the offense.

That said, he will need to replace what Gortat did uniquely well and that is being the table-setter for John Wall in the pick-and-roll. For as much grief as Gortat received over the years, he was one of the best in the NBA at freeing up his teammates. That takes both skill and commitment, knowing it isn't the flashiest part of the sport.

"My whole focus is to do whatever on this team is needed," Howard said. "I know how to set screens. That's not something I need practice on. I've been doing it my whole life. I know that me setting screens and rolling and doing whatever is asked is going to open up the paint and threes for everybody else."

There are reasons to believe Howard can help take the Wizards to new heights on both ends of the floor. But he does come with limitations and the Wizards will have to manage those as they add him into the mix.

Tyler Byrum contributed to this report

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Austin Rivers wants to interview Jay-Z and Barack Obama; still cant John Wall on his podcast

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USA Today

Austin Rivers wants to interview Jay-Z and Barack Obama; still cant John Wall on his podcast

Just one episode into his new podcast 'Go Off,' Wizards guard Austin Rivers is already learning plenty about the media world. With plans to become a television analyst when his playing days are done, Rivers is gaining a new appreciation for what it takes to speak at-length without stumbling over his words.

He's also starting to realize one of the biggest pain points for a media member: waiting on guests. Rivers has tried to line up interviews with his teammates and it's been much easier said than done.

Rivers is set to have Dwight Howard on as his first guest, but the original plan was point guard John Wall. Wall, though, has been giving him the runaround.

"That's the hardest thing is getting guests to show up," Rivers said. 

"It's impossible to get John on my podcast. At this point, I just don't expect it anymore. He says he'll do it next week and then the week comes. John has like 15 things to do a day. I don't know what these guys do. I play in the league, too. I know how un-busy my life is outside of this. And I've got a kid. John has a brand to run. He's a different level. Sorry, you can see the frustration on my face with not getting John on my podcast, man."

Rivers hopes to have many of his teammates on. He mentioned Kelly Oubre Jr. and how an interview with Oubre "might be a little out there." He also gave a hint about what his conversation with Howard will be like.

"I'm definitely gonna have some interesting topics to bring up with Dwight. I told him 'listen, you might want to check with your publicist before coming on my podcast.' We only talk about real conversations on here," Rivers said.

Rivers says he plans to start with fellow NBA players and then work in special episodes with guests outside of the league and even outside of basketball. He hopes to record an episode with financial advisors to talk about money and investments. He wants to take a deep dive into the AAU circuit and how it can be fixed.

Eventually, Rivers wants to aim very high with his guests. He gave a list of his dream interviews and there are some big names.

"Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. Dwyane Wade is my favorite player. I'm gonna get Dwyane Wade on my podcast, for sure. I'm gonna go ahead and put that out there," Rivers said.

"Off-the-court, I would love to get Denzel Washington on there. That would be my dream... I want to do a podcast with me and my dad and Jaden Smith and Will Smith. I think that would be really dope, talking about parent-to-son success and how he related to his son to have a work ethic and how my dad did it to me."

Rivers went even higher. He wants to interview a president.

"I guess if I could go the highest, I would go Jay-Z or [Barack] Obama. But let's be realistic, here," Rivers said.

"[Interviewing Obama] would be incredible, bro. I would be so nervous. I'm not there yet, I'll be honest. I need like six or seven or eight more podcasts before I can get Obama on there because I'm gonna be stuttering. I can't do it with Obama yet. I don't know if I could handle Denzel right now."

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Why the 20-game marker of the season counts for these Wizards

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USA Today Sports

Why the 20-game marker of the season counts for these Wizards

The Washington Wizards improved to 5-9 with Wednesday’s 119-95 enjoyable destruction of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their three-game winning streak pushed the Wizards within 1 ½ games of the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Nobody should burn much energy on the postseason chase in mid-November. However, history suggests trouble brewing if they don’t crack the top-8 this season by Nov. 26.

The date doesn’t actually matter. It’s about where it falls on Washington’s schedule. There is no true line of demarcation to indicate when those analyzing a team’s season can forgo with the “it’s still early” caveat.

Many suggest 20 regular season games eclipse small sample size talk. The Wizards hosts reigning NBA Most Valuable Player James Harden and the Houston Rockets on that post-Thanksgiving evening.

When it comes to projecting which teams will make the playoffs, that 20-game marker proves quite accurate. That is why the Wizards need to continue surging.

Each season 16-playoff spots are available, split evenly between the Eastern and Western Conference. The league-wide schedule doesn’t work out cleanly where all NBA teams reach 20 games at the exact same time so we’ll use the Wizards’ as the pivot point.

Over the last five seasons, teams that occupied a playoff berth at the point where the Wizards played their 20th game held on to one of those 16 annual slots 83.7 percent of the time.

2017-18

East -- At the point Washington played 20 games, 7 of 8 teams seated in a playoff berth held on over the course of 82 games. The Pistons fell from second to the lottery while the Heat moved from 9th place into the elite eight. (Wizards start 7th at 11-9, finish 8th at 43-39)

West – 7 of 8. Nuggets fall; Thunder rise.

2016-17

East -- 5 of 8. Hornets, Knicks, Pistons; Pacers, Hawks, Wizards. (Wizards start 12th at 7-13, finish 4th at 49-33)

West – 8 for 8


2015-16

East -- 7 of 8. Bulls; Pistons. (Wizards start 11th at 9-11, finish 10th at 41-41)

West -- 7 of 8. Jazz; Blazers

2014-15

East -- 7 of 8. Magic; Celtics. (Wizards start T-2 at 14-6, finish 5th at 46-36)

West -- 7 of 8; Suns; Pelicans

2013-14

East -- 6 of 8. Pistons, Celtics; Raptors, Nets. (Wizards start 7th at 9-11, finish 5th at 44-38)

West -- 6 of 8. Nuggets, Suns; Warriors, Grizzlies.

Within each situation, explanations exist. The 2015-16 Bulls began the season with core players available, but their top-4 scorers including Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose missed a combined 50 games. Most of those absences came after the 20-game mark.

The 2017-18 Thunder needed an extra beat to find a rhythm with newly added All-Star Paul George. From an 8-20 start, they finished fourth in the Western Conference.

These 5-9 Wizards have their own tale. Eight of their opening 12 games were on the road. Washington lost six of eight. It also began the season without starting center Dwight Howard for the first seven games and opened 1-6.

“I think it’s different for team to team,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said of how and when to assess teams early in seasons. “I think for [the Wizards], they’ve played a brutal schedule and then when you have a guy (Howard) who is going to be a big part of your team but is injured and couldn’t practice, it’s going to be longer even though they have a core group that has played together. …No matter what, schedule and health are a big part of it.”

Those aren’t the only factors, of course. Sometimes teams start as they finish. The Wizards going from 3-9 to 49 wins is often mentioned as the potential for this season, which began 2-9. Few note the 2015-16 campaign, the final one before head coach Scott Brooks’ arrival. That Washington team, loaded with upcoming free agents just like the current squad, essentially remained outside the playoff picture throughout.

Will these Wizards follow one of those paths or forge another? We’ll find out over the months ahead. Of course, just making the playoffs was never the goal for a team that reached the postseason in four of the previous five seasons. That’s according to Wizards owner Ted Leonsis.

“Well, we want to make the playoffs. We want 50 wins and I’d like to set a bar that says if we can’t get by the first round and the second round then we didn’t meet our goals,” Leonsis said in September.

For the franchise’s first 50-win since the 1978-79 season, the Wizards need a 45-23 record over the final 68 games. That 66.2 winning percentage required would have placed Washington third in the Eastern or Western Conference last season.

To advance to the conference finals, the Wizards likely need homecourt advantage in at least the first round. Over the last five seasons that meant winning at least 48 games. History suggests there isn’t much change among the top-4 seeds as 75 percent (30 of 40) of the top-4 seeds at the point when the Wizards have played 20 regular season games maintain that status.

2017-18

East -- 3 of 4; 76ers 5th to 3rd

West -- 3 of 4; Thunder T-9th to 4th

2016-17

East -- 3 of 4 (Wizards 12th to 4th)

West – 4 of 4

2015-16

East -- 3 of 4; Hawks rose from 8th to 4th, but their 58.5 winning percentage remained the same

West -- 3 of 4; Clippers 5th to 4th

2014-15

East -- 3 of 4; Bulls 5th to 3rd

West -- 3 of 4; Clippers 5th to 3rd

2013-14

East -- 2 of 4; Raptors 9th to 3rd, Bulls 8th to 4th

West -- 3 of 4; Clippers 5th to 3rd

If this three-game winning streak shows what is possible, the Wizards could reach the top-8 by the 20-game mark, though the schedule difficulty increases beyond Friday’s home meeting with Brooklyn. Also, look further up the standings. The Wizards are actually only three games out of the third seed; Indiana and Boston are 8-6.

The Wizards need to keep making moves, but they don’t need to fix all their ills over the next week either.

“They say it’s a marathon, and it is,” Brooks said after the Wizards fell to 1-6 on Oct. 30 following a loss in Memphis.

Brooks’ point was and is fair, but off-kilter starts can doom even Olympic runners over long distances. At some point along the journey, the pace must increase and assessments over what’s transpired kick in.