Now, about that offense ...
It might seem greedy or harsh or nitpicky, I know, to dissect Howard at one end of the court mere hours after celebrating him at the other end. Except that it isn't nitpicking, not even on the heels of playoff-career-best 31 points in Game 1 of the Magic's first-round series against the 76ers. Howard's current offensive prowess and the rate at which his game develops in coming seasons are integral to Orlando as an NBA championship aspirant and to his ambitions to be one of the greatest big men ever.
"I would like to see the ball," Howard later told reporters, who had asked about the team's typical late tilt toward
Said Magic coach
Howard wants to do more. He needs to do more. At 23, with remarkable athletic ability, boundless energy and imposing physical traits, he ought to be able to do more. Or should he?
"He's mainly a back-to-the-basket player," an Eastern Conference scout said this week. "Strictly deep post moves. He's very good at that, but everything is with a lot of contact. Being a less-than-average free-throw shooter, that means he's giving away a lot of points. He doesn't have a good counter to his moves -- a fallaway jump shot or a hook. He doesn't have anything 'away.' Down the stretch, there's got to be a good mix there, that's how you keep the defensive strategy in check. If he takes a jump shot, people might say, 'Why didn't you go to your strength?' But you don't see him taking elbow jumpers."
Not now. A greater concern is that, even as Howard gains experience and logs more gym hours, such enhancements might never come.
"You watch him shoot in warm-ups. I don't see him improving a lot," the scout said. "It used to be, you'd draft a big kid out of college, he'd be 21 or 22, and you'd say, 'It will take him a few years. Big guys take longer.' So Howard still is only 23. But he's five years in the league now, and I'm not sure how much he can add."
Accuracy at the foul line is a good place to start. Howard led the league in free-throw attempts (849) this season partly because it's such a low-risk maneuver for defenders; since he made only 59.4 percent, he also led the NBA with 345 misses.
That means Howard missed an average of 4.36 free throws per game over his 79 appearances. Another way to frame it: He missed nearly as many foul shots as Shaq and Duncan combined. That's the sort of thing that can lose games, get coaches fired and stop a budding contender in its tracks.
More perspective? Howard, in five NBA seasons, has missed 1,367 free throws, an average of 273.4 per season. O'Neal has clanged 5,145 across 17 seasons (302.6). Then there's
On the other hand,
"What people don't understand is, you can really hear everything that goes on in the crowd when you're at the free-throw line," Howard told
"You can hear the slightest little noise, you can hear people whispering," the candid Howard said. "If anybody's ever been a speaker in front of a big crowd, when you're looking at the people in the audience, you can see the slightest movements, like you've got a magnifying glass. It's just like that at the free-throw line, you can hear everything -- people at the top saying stuff, people at the bottom saying 'Bend your knees!' or 'Follow through!'"
Everyone's a critic. Which is why I feel as if I've been down this road before, writing about a supremely talented, defensive-minded big man who couldn't quite please people at the other end. Consider these headlines from consecutive playoffs earlier in this decade:
• "Garnett needs to be superior consistently," April 24, 2003
That last one ran in the Minneapolis newspaper the morning of Game 1 of
"He turned down a lot of shots and made a lot of extra passes," Saunders said, noting that Garnett had fought leg cramps from dehydration. "That probably means he didn't feel right."
Said Garnett, then wrapping up his seventh season: "I didn't want to be in a position where I did something careless or overly aggressive."
So it was different problems, same result. With Garnett, it was shrinking and retreating at the worst moment, a perceived flaw that followed him beyond reason, through his Game 7 dramatics against Sacramento in the 2004 conference semifinals, all the way to Boston. There, passing shots off to guys named Paul and Ray rather than Dean suddenly was OK. With Howard, it is showing limitations when they hurt most, not getting the ball even when he wants it because he hasn't
Garnett drew critics for moving away from contact, constantly fading away for jumpers and cheating himself and his team of cheap points from the line. Howard does the opposite -- he seeks the contact, gets to the line and then fails to make opponents pay. That's a downside that has put other big men of big repute on the bench.
"I don't think he's Shaq or
Look, it's tricky with the big guys -- we could throw
Still, that didn't stop Lakers coach