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.
Boston legend Bill Russell got there despite certain shortcomings as a scorer, by dint of his extreme defensive demeanor and one magnificent, unassailable jewelry box. Most of the game's other titans, though, had more reliable, versatile, even formidable offensive games. Howard's scoring output this season was fine -- 20.6 points per game on 57.2 percent shooting -- but he left a lot of possible points on the court through a combination of his limited range from the field and limited success from the line. And in the waning moments of the Magic's Game 1 loss Sunday, Howard was largely omitted from the Magic's attack during and after Philadelphia erased a 18-point deficit.
"I would like to see the ball," Howard later told reporters, who had asked about the team's typical late tilt toward Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and jump shots. "But I'm not going to complain about it."
Said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy: "Rightly or wrongly, we went to what we normally do, pick-and-rolls with [Turkoglu] and Dwight. Looking back, we had pretty good shots out of them, and Dwight was open on several rolls to the rim where we missed him."
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. Shaquille O'Neal was a distant second in missed free throws (210), followed by Dwyane Wade (181), LeBron James (168), Emeka Okafor (150), Tim Duncan (149), Josh Smith (148) and Andre Iguodala (144).
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 Wilt Chamberlain, who missed a daunting 5,805 free throws in 14 seasons (414.6).
On the other hand, Michael Jordan, in 14-plus seasons, missed 1,445 free throws -- just 78 more than Howard so far. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took 22 years to miss 2,592; Howard's more than halfway there after five. No wonder the Magic star has taken to singing Beyonce tunes at the line -- anything to drown out the voices, in his head and out.
"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 Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard last month during interviews for the magazine's April 20 cover story. Ballard subsequently shared the quote, which didn't make it into his feature, with Third-Quarter Collapse, an Orlando Magic blog.
"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• "Garnett hounded by recent criticism," April 23, 2002• "It's time to ask more of Garnett," April 21, 2001
That last one ran in the Minneapolis newspaper the morning of Game 1 of Kevin Garnett's and the Timberwolves' 2001 series against San Antonio. By the end of that night, the Spurs had won 87-82 at the Alamodome, Garnett had taken no shots over the final 6:14 beyond a too-late tip-in, and the Wolves' star twice had put the ball in journeyman center Dean Garrett's hands for shots in the last 1:18. When it was over, Minnesota coach Flip Saunders conceded that his best player -- who gained a reputation and took much heat for being unable or unwilling to take over with the basketball late in important games -- had passed up scoring chances.
"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 earned it, hasn't proved that he can get done what needs to be done.
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 Ben Wallace," the scout said, "but he's more of a liability than somebody like Duncan. The Spurs still go to him late because he's a pretty good jump shooter. You can put him at the top of the circle -- I've seen him hit threes to win games. Howard is strong, a heck of an athlete, an incredible runner and jumper. I just don't see him as a jump shooter."
Look, it's tricky with the big guys -- we could throw Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire among alleged "franchise players" into this mix, too. They're dependent on others to deliver the ball. They work from specific spots on the floor, which makes it easier to find them with double teams. Great wing players are moving targets for those extra defenders, and they have more tools in their belts to score. Garnett was considered an underachiever in the clutch until he got sufficient help, first from Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, more recently Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Howard, so far, hasn't had his Bryant, Wade, Ginobili or Parker.
Still, that didn't stop Lakers coach Phil Jackson from saying last week on Dan Patrick's radio show that he would pick Howard over almost everyone else (Bryant was exempted from the discussion) to start a franchise. What it does mean, though, is that Howard is going to have to add to and enhance his offense -- at least his free throws -- over the next several summers, or he's going to get dogged by critics each spring.