“No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of Me.” – Isaiah 54:17
You might think that a chiseled, 6-foot-11, 265-pound NBA star who is slated to make roughly $23 million this year could care less what the naysayers think about him.
You’d be wrong, too.
It probably wasn’t an accident that Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard had the above Bible verse adorned on the wristbands he was sporting following a recent team shoot-around at Philips Arena. He is in many ways a walking, talking conundrum, every bit as equally the still somewhat insecure young man off the court as he is the unrelenting physical force of nature on it.
Very intelligent and soft-spoken, Howard is a man of strong faith who has struggled at times throughout his NBA career with the barrage of criticism that has come his way since going directly from high school to the pros as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft.
“I’m not a butt-hole,” Howard told The Shadow League during a recent sit-down in Atlanta. “People always say, ‘He’s an A-hole.’ You can’t please everybody, but I’ve just never been that way. I’m quiet and a man of few words. I just want to enjoy life.”
But an ugly close to his tenure in Orlando followed by acrimonious stops in Los Angeles and Houston only served to further embolden critics who accused Howard of being a self-indulgent cancer who ruined every team he played for.
The criticism hasn’t always been fair, a fact that many critics simply choose to ignore. For his part, Howard hasn’t always helped at times with his own immaturity, but the fact remains that he is still one of the NBA’s most dominant big men capable of taking over games at both ends of the floor.
The Hawks clearly believed as much as well when they signed Howard to a lucrative free agent contract in the offseason believed to be worth $70.5 million over three years.
The deal, however, could well be a winning hand for everybody involved. Atlanta now has a dominant presence down low who could eventually help them challenge LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.
For Howard, it was a unique opportunity to return to his roots in his native Atlanta, where he starred in high school at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, while rehabilitating his own battered professional image and trying to bring a title back to his championship-starved hometown.
He’s determined to do just that, meaning that even family and close friends will have to bide their time as Howard becomes singular in his focus.
“[Winning a championship] is my focus and my family understands that,” Howard told The Shadow League. “During the season, my focus is my teammates and the Hawks. After the season we can hang out and talk about old times, but, right now, that’s not my focus.”
Early ups and downs in return to the ATL
The Hawks quickly became the toast of the town after a torrid 9-2 start that included an impressive Nov. 8 road win over the reigning champion Cavaliers. But the reality is that only three of those 11 games came against teams that reached the playoffs last year. And one of those postseason squads, the Miami Heat, is a shell of its former itself after losing Dwayne Wade to free agency this summer.
A subsequent seven-game road skid included a 36-point loss to Detroit on Dec. 2 and a 44-point beatdown at Toronto the following day, prompting critics to once again point the finger at Howard.
Things began getting uglier with each mounting loss. Only now, the vitriol is there for all of Howard’s family and close friends to readily see and hear through the daily TV news reports, newspaper headlines and various social media mediums.
“You can’t think about it,” said Howard. “My family – no matter what - is going to always love me and care for me. No matter if I have a good game or bad game, they’re still going to be the same. Fans are going to be fans. If we lose, they’ll point the finger and say ‘This guy could have done better, whatever, whatever,’ so we can’t focus on that. But it’s hard not to because we’re human. But it’s about the guys in the locker room. I know I can be better and I will.”
The reality is that becoming acclimated with any new team is always going to be a process that takes time for cohesion to build. But that hasn’t deterred critics, who quickly began decrying Howard as the reason for the team’s sudden slide. His high price tag makes him that much more of an inviting target.
Angry fans were quick to point out that Howard has been the one common denominator in his previous stops in Orlando, Los Angeles and Houston. Never mind that the aging Lakers had all kinds of issues well before Howard’s arrival. Never mind that James Harden consistently monopolized the ball and stagnated the Rockets offense while averaging just under 20 shots per game last year to Howard’s average of fewer than 8.5. Or that the Rockets nonetheless won at least 54 regular season games in the ridiculously competitive Western Conference in two of the three years Howard was in Houston, losing to the more talented Golden State Warriors in each of the last two playoffs, including last year’s first-round matchup.
Howard has taken the high road, always insisting on looking forward and not dwelling on the past. But he concedes that it gets tougher the more he hears the same ugly refrains. Try as he might otherwise, the easygoing big man says it’s just human nature to be bothered by the incessant naysaying.
“In this day and age, it can be hard sometimes not to listen to the whispers and all the stuff that’s going on around you when you lose,” Howard said. “But we have to keep our minds locked into what we have to do as a team. Keep it in the locker room and keep it on the court.”
But those who may know best say he’s already proven a tremendous addition to the Hawks.
“He’s very, very smart and he understands coverages,” Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan said prior to a recent game against Atlanta. “He reads situations before they take place, he plugs up a lot of gaps and he gives them rim protection. So he impacts the game in a lot of different ways.”
Howard, who is averaging 13.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots per game as of Dec. 10, has always been at his offensive best when used in the high pick-and-roll. His ability to quickly roll to the basket makes him an inviting target for lobs that lead to easy highlight-reel dunks and creates opportunities for teammates as defenses focus on accounting for Howard. An excellent rebounder with a nose for the ball, he is frequently in good position to clean up any of his teammates’ misses with offensive rebounds and excels in transition because of his ability to run the floor so well. Most opposing big men simply can’t keep up with him.
Defensively, he boasts the powerful, broad shoulders and long wing span needed to be an instant force down low. Howard is one of the league’s top shot blockers, but he alters countless more with his presence and ability to immediately compensate at the basket for any defensive breakdowns.
“He’s been great,” teammate Thabo Sefolosha said. “He brings size to our team and toughness. He puts a lot of pressure in the paint on both ends of the floor.”
But getting the 31-year-old, five-time All-NBA first-team selection involved early, however, has always been the key, as he’s proven himself a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor when engaged from the game’s outset. Howard poured in 13 of his season-high 31 points in the first quarter and 11 rebounds against the Lakers as Atlanta’s guards got him involved early on. He likewise tabbed 10 of his 23 points in the opening period of the 103-95 win over the Heat on December 7th and added a game-high 17 boards that night to help Hawks snap their seven-game losing skid.
Atlanta appears back on track after adding a follow-up victory at Milwaukee two days later, rallying from a 20-point deficit for the win.
“I got to establish myself early,” Howard said. “I got to establish myself throughout the game and be aggressive. I want to get back to doing what I need to do. I have to be assertive. That starts every day in practice.”
His return home to the ATL hasn’t come without its share of challenges. The Hawks’ shaky guard play has at times clearly frustrated him in much the same manner as it did while playing with the ball-hogging Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles or Harden in Houston.
Typical of many young, inexperienced players, Atlanta point guard Dennis Shroder tends to over-dribble at times in his first year as a full-time starter, while the team’s other guards have struggled to consistently move the ball or hit the perimeter shots necessary to keep defenders from cheating down. The cumulative result has been that Howard has already been limited to just four field goal attempts in three different games this season despite a staggering field goal percentage of just under 61 percent that ranks among the best in the NBA.
Like most big men, the highly competitive Howard can clearly become exasperated at times. But being a professional means always playing with the same intensity at all times, no matter the circumstances. If he doesn’t get the ball, he is more capable than most of getting it himself by attacking the offensive glass.
The job of keeping their big man happy ultimately falls on Mike Budenholzer. But the fourth-year Hawks coach and former longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant say he loves everything he’s seen from Howard so far.
“I think he’s been very good for us, the way he’s impacted our rebounding and defense,” Budenholzer said. “That’s always been his priority. He understands how important that is for us to be good.”
But that same vindication Howard has long sought from the fan base has proven considerably more elusive. It’s why he maintains that he’s “most definitely” misunderstood by critics who don’t actually know him or how desperately he wants to win.
Even in his hometown of Atlanta.
“For the most part, people have always fed into what they’ve heard or what they’ve read about players,” Howard said. “People who have never even spent two hours with a player. Perception becomes reality. How somebody perceives you could be totally far off from who you really are.”
Now it’s Howard’s turn to start making more believers.