Maybe you’ve noticed the formula whenever the Orlando Magic play on national TV: Dwight Howard does something good on offense — a hook shot, a drop step, a jumper, basically anything beyond an alley-oop or a Chocolate Thunder dunk — and the announcers inevitably start talking about Patrick Ewing and his role as Dwight’s big-man mentor as the camera zooms in on Ewing looking like a gigantic History professor.
And maybe you’ve noticed the other half of the formula: That whenever Dwight has his stretches of invisibility or fails to show any offensive growth since high school, Ewing is never mentioned. The blame goes to either Dwight for not commanding the ball, or to his teammates for not passing him the ball.
This is Ewing’s third season in Orlando as an assistant under Stan Van Gundy, and as far as I know, his only job is to teach Dwight Howard a post game. So far, has the mentorship been working?
Dwight’s unpolished skills were never more scrutinized than in last year’s run to the NBA Finals, when all eyes were on him as he squared off with Kobe, LeBron and the Celtics. Struggling to score against L.A.’s front line and coming so close to a championship, I figured Dwight would have the necessary motivation to lock himself in the gym over the summer and show up this season looking more like Kevin McHale than Kevin Lyde. Dwight even said he was dedicating himself over the summer to improving his post game. It’s mainly why I led the campaign for Dwight as Dime’s preseason MVP pick.
But so far, Howard’s sixth pro season has been defined by even more offensive mediocrity. Forty-six games in, he’s already had six occasions where he’s scored in single digits, compared to just two single-digit scoring nights out of 102 games (including playoffs) last season. To be fair, foul trouble on the defensive end has played a significant factor in that, but otherwise it’s clear that opponents studied Dwight over the summer and are learning how to defend an arsenal that still appears limited.
Of course he’s showing flashes. He’s always done that. Against the Lakers on MLK Day, Dwight looked like a veritable Tim Duncan, breaking out moves I’d rarely seen him use and even sticking a jumper off the glass on purpose. Against Boston last night, he again had his moments, most notably a nice jump-stop in the lane to set up a baby hook, two of his 11 fourth-quarter points. (Followed by Reggie Miller predictably noting, “You see, that’s ALL Patrick Ewing there.”)
But when you’re among the most impressive athletic specimens to every play the center position — in the same class as Shaq, Wilt, Kareem and Hakeem — and you’re on the books for about $70 million over the next four years, people want more than flashes.
On the other hand, maybe Dwight is being asked to do too much. Fans and analysts want superstars to be able to do everything, but if a guy is going to lead the League in rebounding and blocks every year for the next decade, are you really gonna be mad at him for not being an artist on the low-block? Not everybody has Jordan or Oscar DNA: Jason Kidd never got that jumper to be deadly; Steve Nash never learned to lock anybody down; Dennis Rodman never decided to play offense. So if Dwight can get me 14 boards and three blocks and some momentum-changing dunks and that’s all he’s capable of, that’s fine by me.
But if Dwight really does have the tools to be a great post scorer and he’s just not realizing his potential, what needs to happen? More hours in the gym? Swapping Ewing for a different tutor? A different head coach? Different teammates?
What has to happen for Dwight Howard to be as good as everybody wants him to be?