ATLANTA — For two hours, Dwight Howard had gone hard inside Georgia Tech’s basketball facility, moving between the weight room and gymnasium, between conditioning and basketball. No tomfoolery, no high jinks. When Howard does the work, he’s ferocious in his approach, meticulous in methodology.
During this summer, Howard has lost a little weight, and a lot of anger. He has been humbled, unloaded out of his Atlanta homecoming only to now be re-engaged in possibility with Charlotte. Steve Clifford had driven 3½ hours to watch him work on a sultry summer day, and the coach of the Charlotte Hornets represents something so important to Howard now. Clifford is a link to Howard’s glory days with the Orlando Magic, the rarest of NBA coaching species: He wanted Howard. He knows him, trusts him in his locker room and believes Howard can make an immense impact on the Hornets.
As much as anything, Howard craves acceptance, and that’s why his trade to Charlotte, to Clifford, has him believing all over again.
“Cliff’s going to push me, but he’s not going to ever be one of those guys who I would say would break my spirit,” Howard told ESPN. “He really believes in me. Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths.”
Clifford stands as Howard’s best, final lifeline to resurrect his good name. He’s the coach standing between Howard and a closing career chapter that threatens to transform him into a journeyman. For everything Howard has accomplished, that looms as an ending unfit for a Hall of Fame center.
At the end of each of the past two seasons, Howard felt unwanted with the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets. He felt miscast on the court and misunderstood off it. These are themes that seldom go away with Howard, that feed his insecurities and shape his responses to professional adversity.
“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.
“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”
Eventually, there was something else on this August afternoon, too: Howard circling the 3-point arc, launching shots to the rim. He shoots 3-pointers every day now. For three summers, he has been trying to make it part of his offensive game. In a lot of ways, in this changing NBA, it is a bid to stay relevant. Around Howard, the NBA has dramatically evolved, with the power center slowly, surely losing influence. Howard has a notion to reinvent himself offensively, the way he has often tried to do in his life — changing those in his inner circle, changing agents, changing teams.
As for the 3-pointers, Howard knows where Clifford stands on them. Charlotte has a playbook of ways to use Howard on offense, to get him the ball with actions once executed in Orlando. Charlotte will use his ability to pass, too.
Nevertheless, there are no Howard 3-pointers written into Clifford’s playbook.
This is classic Dwight Howard: an investment born of his best intentions, but ultimately counterproductive. These are private workouts, run by Howard’s own staff, and Clifford hadn’t made the seven-hour round trip to talk to Howard about 3-pointers. They have so much history together, with the Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers, and Clifford understands the ways to get the most out of Howard. Sometimes, it’s wisest to let Howard get his ideas — some well-meaning, some silly — out of his system, and prod him back to matters of importance.
“Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths.”
Hornets center Dwight Howard
Howard sees Clifford and thinks about the chance to recapture something lost, a time and place when he still used the Superman moniker. Once, Howard was the most dominant two-way force in basketball. He’s 31 years old, and 13 pro seasons have taken a toll on his knees. Clifford was on coach Stan Van Gundy’s bench as the top assistant for five years in Orlando. And now, with Charlotte, Clifford has developed a reputation as one of the NBA head coaches who gets more out of less. Clifford has wanted the Hornets to make a Howard trade for two years.
Hours earlier on that August afternoon, Clifford had climbed into his Mercedes SUV and started a drive down to Atlanta. Clifford steered through the state of South Carolina, past the Clemson University campus, and talked about an eight-time All-Star center whom he’s tasked with integrating into a roster that loves the idea of his arrival.
“He fits with our team, the way we play,” Clifford said on the drive. “So much of our [NBA] game has become a 3-point game, but most teams still get those shots from inside-out. To me, he still has a big paint presence at both ends of the floor. And his greater strengths remain the same: as a basket protector, as a rebounder, as a defensive organizer, great screener, can demand the ball in the paint [and] draw fouls. Those things don’t change at all.
“He’s not the same athlete he was when we first got to Orlando. But he’s much more experienced now. [I] still think there’s a lot of good basketball left in him.
“From the trade until now, I think he’s very motivated to have a great year, and he badly wants us to win. The last couple years have been difficult for him. I see him as motivated to work. The success of our team is the thing that keeps coming up in our conversations. He wants to be a part of our team. And that’s his priority.”
His homecoming to the Hawks on a three-year, $70 million free-agent contract turned into a one-and-done when the franchise and Howard sought a trade as soon as the season ended. Nothing’s ending well for him lately, not with the Hawks, nor the Rockets.
“Teams wanted me to do different things than they promised me when I went to choose them,” Howard told ESPN. “In Atlanta, I was going to be involved in the offense. Then, toward the end of the season, it turned into, ‘Hey, we just got you for defense and rebounds.’
“What people don’t understand from the outside is that, ‘Oh, he isn’t getting shots so his game is declining,’ and that always goes back to opportunity and system. Players thrive with an opportunity and system.
“It stung me how I started the season, getting a lot of shot attempts, getting the ball — and by the end of the season, in the fourth I was sitting on the bench. It pissed me off. I knew that I had more to give the game, give myself and the team.”
Howard sees so much of those Orlando squads in his new team: a stretch-four, Marvin Williams; shooters Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum; and a Magic-esque offense that aims to play four-out with Howard in the middle. For Howard to stay on the floor and punish teams on offense for going small, Clifford has reinforced a condition: Get yourself in tremendous shape, get out on the perimeter and prepare to guard mobile centers far from the basket.
“A lot players are always talking about expanding their game,” Clifford said. “And if you want to be able to play against every other center, you have to expand your game defensively, too. My point to him has been this: You have to remember your great strengths remain your great strengths. We have to be able to adapt to the NBA game and the things that people in your position are doing.”
Clifford has made the treks to visit with Howard to reconnect and make sure they have a baseline of trust for when the tough times come in the season — because they always do.
Charlotte has been missing physical toughness and rebounding. Howard is no longer an All-Star, but he can still be a force. He can still impact winning and losing.
“I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando,” Howard said. “The fact that I played with a Kobe [Bryant], a James [Harden], and they were ball-dominant, affected me. But I’ve been in this system before, and I know how dominant I can be. I think I’m smarter now, and that is going to allow me to use my quickness and explosiveness in a better way.”
Truth be told, no one is expecting dominance from Howard. Those days are gone. But Clifford still believes Howard can be the difference between the lottery and the playoffs.
“I have always thought about that: All I have to do is win,” Howard said. “I thought the situation in Houston was going to be great. But that last year just wasn’t there. We started out super good here in Atlanta, and I thought, ‘This is it. It’s all about to change.’ And then, it didn’t.”
Clifford gives Howard his best chance in a long time, but this is no fairy tale, and these aren’t the glory years of the Orlando Magic. Howard has a chance, but it’s on him — once and for all.