Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alpha dog or not, Howard has been Magic in Orlando

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA - Dwight Howard is one of the most charismatic players in the NBA, but when you start talking about the best players in basketball, he's rarely mentioned in a conversation dominated by LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Heck, even when you start expanding things, names like Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul are on the tip of everyone's tongue. This season, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant has even joined the second-tier, but Howard?

For some reason, most offer up the Stewie Griffin compliment sandwich, a device where you say something good, then talk about where the big man needs improvement before ending with something good.

Take's Mike Freeman...

"He should be the 21st century's Wilt Chamberlain," Freeman recently said of Howard. "No NBA big man has Howard's athleticism and power. Yet, despite the protestations of Howard's apologists, he continues to underachieve for a man of such significant physical presence."

It's funny, the reason Freeman compared Howard to the legendary Chamberlain was that on Wednesday in Houston he became the first player since Wilt to record 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a game without missing a field goal since Chamberlain turned the trick in the 1968-69 season.

ESPN's Bill Simmons said Dwight Howard has "an alpha dog pedigree with a sidekick mindset."
"I don't think this is just a stretch. I think his game has matured," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said after Howard's big night in south Texas. "He's had stretches where he's played well, but he's changed the way he plays now. He's not forcing his way to the basket. If you take away his move across the middle, he'll counter. If you take that away, he'll come back again. He's not going to force through double-teams."

Freeman isn't the only one disagreeing with Van Gundy's take. ESPN's Bill Simmons recently said Howard has "an alpha dog pedigree with a sidekick mindset."

A "sidekick" that happens to lead the entire league in both rebounding and blocked shots for a second straight season.

If you don't think that's impressive, understand no player in NBA history has led the league in both rebounding and blocked shots more than once. Now granted, 1973-74 was the first season where blocks were kept as an official statistic by the NBA so Wilt's dominance is overlooked, but you have still had a host of great centers over the past 35 years like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal that couldn't turn that trick.

The Orlando Sentinel's George Diaz stuck with the alpha dog motif, writing "Become the alpha dog, not the tail-wagging, happy-go-lucky puppy."

To me, Diaz really hit on what bothers people about Howard.

They look at the physique and the frightening athletic skills and wonder why he can't dominate like Chamberlain did on a nightly basis. Then, to a man, they all point to that famous smile and you start hearing things about not taking the game seriously enough and work-ethic, an almost ludicrous criticism.

I've seen it before.

Here in Philadelphia, many football fans profoundly dislike Donovan McNabb, unquestionably the best quarterback in Eagles history, simply because he smirks when he does something wrong.

As a Yankee fan, I loved Paul O'Neill, a high-energy player that would throw his batting helmet to the ground in disgust when grounding into a double-play or striking out.

You see, fans like players they think are living and dying with every loss, just like they are.

Problem is, you can't be a professional athlete and have that type of mentality. Win, lose or draw, you have to show up for work the next day and do it all over again.

At 24 years old, Howard is just not skilled enough on the offensive end to be the consistent 25-point scorer everyone wants him to be. He needs an Olajuwon- like go-to move in the pivot and that is not easily taught.

"He's been playing great and making his post moves inside," added teammate Rashard Lewis. "He's really been working on it and it has really been showing in the games. His offensive game has really been coming on."

And, that's what people don't understand about Howard. They see the youth. They see the immaturity, and they think he's mailing it on some nights.

Well, you don't get that body by goofing off. Ask anyone around the Magic and they will tell you Howard is one of the hardest workers in the NBA.

If that puts me in the apologists camp, I'll happily go, smiling along the way, right next to Orlando's alpha dog.

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