Dwight Howard is going to snap. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, exactly what it’s going to entail, or which sad soul will take the brunt of it … but it’s coming.
Last night, Howard made 22 trips to the free-throw line in a win over the Pacers, three days after he shot 17 free throws in a loss to Phoenix. In both games, the defensive strategy was clear: Don’t let Dwight dunk on you at a 98 percent clip when you can send him to the line and take your chances 50/50.
Dwight is used to that part. He knows that until he becomes a reliable free-throw shooter, teams will hack him. His issue — and the issue of Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy — is with how he’s being hacked. As one of the Magic’s announcers said last night, Howard is “getting sick of the neck fouls.” When Troy Murphy unleashed one of these horse-collar style takedowns on Dwight in the second half of yesterday’s game, Dwight got a technical for pushing Murphy off of him and giving him a hard stare.
It reminded me of a game almost exactly one year ago, when Dwight was on his way to dunking on the Clippers and Zach Randolph yanked him down from behind by the neck. That time, Dwight fell to the floor with a bang, unprotected. (He wasn’t hurt.) That time, Dwight got right up and went about his business of dominating; he finished with a 20/20 stat line just like he did against Indiana last night. One year later, Dwight isn’t just taking the beatings with a smile. But if he doesn’t want to get ejected, all he can fight back with are glares and harder dunks. More treatment like this, however, and the aftermath will get worse.
What we’re seeing with Dwight is the same thing we’ve seen with Shaq for 17 years. Because he’s so big and strong, teams committed to fouling him have to foul hard; and because he’s so big and strong and takes so much contact, referees don’t know exactly how to call the game. Nobody wants to watch Dwight (or Shaq) shoot 20-something free throws. Nobody wants to watch opposing bigs foul out in the first half. Nobody wants to get into ticky-tack whistles every time down the court. It’s like how they say NFL referees could call a penalty on every play, but have to pick and choose when to enforce the rules so as not to hold up the game too much. After all, nobody pays to watch the refs.
Shaq eventually grew accustomed to taking a beating, but Dwight isn’t there yet. He’s one of the most good-natured guys in the NBA and he understands the treatment his size and strength brings upon him, but it doesn’t mean he’s not human. Sometime over the next year, assuming he doesn’t suddenly become Mark Price at the stripe, Dwight will either learn to take the punishment in stride or he’ll start retaliating.
For every big man put in this situation, the easiest answer has always been to have an enforcer. It looks weird, considering the enforcer is usually smaller than the guy who needs protection — it’s like seeing Terry Crews with a bodyguard — but it works. Shaq had his greatest success when he had somebody looking out for him: Horace Grant in Orlando and L.A., Samaki Walker and A.C. Green in L.A., Udonis Haslem in Miami. It didn’t stop Shaq from getting fouled all the time, but at least he didn’t feel like he was out there fighting a solo battle.
Dwight Howard has made it to an MVP level and went to the ’09 Finals without an enforcer. Last spring, I wrote that Orlando could win a championship with its perimeter-oriented system where Dwight was the only real interior threat, comparing the ’09 Magic to the ’94 Houston Rockets:
The biggest difference between the ’94 Rockets (who won 58 games in the regular season) and the ’09 Magic is that Hakeem had Otis Thorpe up front with him, who was good for a double-double every night and could effectively guard dudes like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Shawn Kemp while keeping Hakeem out of foul trouble. Dwight doesn’t have that kind of enforcer/cleanup hitter, although I’ve been saying for a while that Van Gundy should at least try to play Dwight and Marcin Gortat together once in a while and see what happens.
Houston repeated as champs in ’95 after trading Thorpe, starting Robert Horry at power forward. (Think Rashard Lewis with the current-day Magic.) Those Rockets had no real enforcer to speak of, but then again, Hakeem was so good that often it didn’t matter. Teams didn’t play Hack-a-Hakeem because he’d hit his free throws, and he was quick and coordinated enough to guard All-Star bigs without getting in foul trouble. Again, though, Dwight isn’t there yet. He needs some help.
And this is where Van Gundy comes in. While he’s doing his part by making the issue public and trying to influence refs who cover future Orlando games, he’s not doing anything about it on the court besides complaining. I thought Orlando made a step in the right direction by re-signing Gortat and acquiring Brandon Bass over the summer, but Van Gundy isn’t using them. As Dwight was getting assaulted last night, Bass stayed on the bench with a DNP-CD, and Gortat played five minutes — the exact five minutes that Dwight wasn’t on the court.
Van Gundy has a choice to make. Giving Bass and Gortat more time alongside Dwight takes a three-point threat off the floor and limits Orlando’s offense somewhat, but leaving Dwight to fend for himself is a recipe for an injury or an incident. Dwight is a lone wolf out there, and I’ve been watching enough nature shows lately to know that when a wolf doesn’t have the protection of a pack, somebody is going to get hurt.