Part of the Houston Rockets’ successful free agency pitch to Dwight Howard had been to orchestrate his own locker room again, revitalizing a personal pride in the process. No more tense future Hall of Famers uneasy about the incumbent star, no more day-to-day scrutiny over his smile and leadership, his free throws and hook shots.
Howard never wanted to step on the toes of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash and any Los Angeles Laker, but he’s never one to lead from the shadows, either. There, Howard was simply one of the guys. Yet beyond his individual greatness and double-doubles, everyone from Howard’s past understood he also brought jubilating jokes and his own concepts about controlling the environment and managing roles.
With the Lakers, Howard’s cries for increased touches and his ability to forge winning relationships always felt empty and strained, and Houston management knew it. The Rockets’ hierarchy understood opposing suitors had tried to tarnish elements of Daryl Morey’s roster, and countered with reason no one will match the closeness of this group, with vows a franchise star’s run of the organization starts with no insecurities or differences within his own locker room.
“I don’t have to say, ‘I need the ball,’” Howard told RealGM. “The guys here know what we have to do to be successful, to play inside out. We have young guys, and they want to accomplish some things in this league also. I understand that. I understand that we need everyone. If I can make sure that guys are happy, that they’re getting the ball and getting a rhythm, it makes it tough to beat us.
“My time, my shots will come. I want to make sure guys around me are elevated. Me being the oldest guy on the team as far as seasons, I have to understand that I have to show these guys the right way to go.”
Interacting with teammates isn’t a fabricated assignment anymore, and Howard jokes and praises, greets and acknowledges everyone from James Harden and Chandler Parsons to Robert Covington and Isaiah Canaan. Omri Casspi had been minding his own business leaving his locker after a recent road game, and Howard approached him from behind and applauded the minutes he’s provided. Then, Howard smiled wide and added, “That’s a nice sweater, too.”
Early in the season, Howard called for the basketball sometimes, but he noticed repeated requests could create discouraging traits among younger players. He stayed away from the dispiriting rah-rah with the Orlando Magic, creating ball movement and energy and not stagnation, and he didn’t plan on paving a new trend now.
Across the first week of February, Howard’s back has strengthened, his game has sharpened to the tune of 30 points, 10 rebounds and over two blocks per game and his lines of communication are as alive as ever within the team.
From defensive schemes to offensive sets, Howard talks to everyone, “All the time. Our dialogue doesn’t end.”
Howard scans the Western Conference standings, and he sees unsustainable starts from some. As teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers cement cushion in the playoff chase, a part of him is reminded of those old Cleveland Cavaliers’ 60-win seasons only derailed by dwindling staying power, hobbling to the finish line of a postseason.
“A lot of teams start out hot and cool off,” Howard told RealGM, “and I told our guys that we want to stay consistent all season and then make the big push right after All-Star break going into the playoffs. That’s when the opportunity comes.”
And this much is certain: These Rockets’ talent won’t will them into a championship, but it’s delivered through cohesive, collective efforts blended with the star powers of Howard and Harden. Everyone must believe in the purpose of his role. This late in a season, a player moping and pouting – as Omer Asik’s actions portray – must be addressed.
As his former Bulls coaches and teammates say, Asik was so hard working and selfless, his willingness to separate himself from Houston’s structure came as a surprise. They don’t envision a whiner in the Turkish seven-footer, someone who sacrificed minutes behind Joakim Noah for two No. 1 seeds with Chicago.
The Rockets have asked for significant assets in trade talks centered on him, but Howard knows Asik could viably back him up in case of injury or foul trouble, in a way Marcin Gortat had for three seasons. For now, Asik returned from a 31-game absence Saturday night, and Kevin McHale will increase his stamina and solidify his backup center capacity over the next month.
Howard believes in patience with emerging players like Terrence Jones and wants to be part of the process with them, and a leading stature within a team – within a locker room – feels so justifying to him. He’s far, far from the pressures of Los Angeles, the heavy eye of Kobe Bryant and the passionate directions gone unanswered. In this way, Houston didn’t promise Dwight Howard winning, as much as it promised the comfort and attainment of his own locker room to lead again.