Is Dwight copying Shaq?

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - July 13, 2013 - 12:00am

Is Dwight Howard’s career path starting to look like Shaquille O’Neal’s, minus the championships? 

Howard is now playing for the Houston Rockets, his third team in the last three years. O’Neal himself called the move a “safe” one for Howard, who is now getting a bunch of negative press for leaving the uncertain Los Angeles Lakers. To be fair, it was not his fault the Lakers decided to change coaches immediately before the season started. It wasn’t his fault that Steve Nash, playing the most pivotal position of point guard, holder of all the plays, was injured at the very start of the season when they needed him the most.

Neither was it Howard’s fault he couldn’t grasp the intricacies of a new system. He can’t be blamed for never having played alongside a dominant scorer and heavy shooter like Kobe Bryant. It wasn’t his fault fans had higher expectations of him given the situation. And it certainly wasn’t because of anything he did that Bryant was seriously injured late in the season. 

What he can be blamed for was all the confusion regarding his decision to leave LA. There were a lot of confusing statements coming from people identified with him, who often seemed unaware of what Dwight himself was thinking. Initially, the belief was that he would stay for another season at least. Then there was some surprise that he bolted for the Houston Rockets, simultaneously asking them to acquire a third superstar to join him and James Harden.

O’Neal, top overall pick of the 1992 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic, had a similar circuitous path, albeit a much more successful one. Shaq played for six different teams: the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. His first transfer was the most heralded, as he made the announcement at a Dream Team press conference at the Atlanta Olympics. You should have seen the shock on the face of Penny Hardaway, who had made the Finals with O’Neal and was certain he was going nowhere without him.

Howard, the first pick overall in 2004, suited up for the Magic, where he began as a wide-eyed, broad-smiled kid out of high school. Eventually, even after major tinkering with the roster, he was still frustrated, winning only a pair of division championships in the rugged Eastern Conference. Perhaps as a way to escape the dominance of LeBron James, Howard went to the West, a bigger media market, and what he thought were better circumstances. Like Shaq, he was looking forward to a fruitful stint in LA. It didn’t happen, and he got impatient. With Bryant out for at least six months and a system that didn’t work for him, he felt justified.

Shaq won titles with the Lakers and Heat, and piled up a roomful of hardware, from Rookie of the Year to MVP to three-time NBA Finals MVP to All-Star Game MVP. He also compiled impressive individual awards that are the envy of most players. But both big men have been criticized for not building on their prodigious gifts, never improving their free throw shooting, not working on their post moves or developing a decent mid-ranged jumper. In fact, the criticism may have been harsher on Howard, who had O’Neal’s example to follow.

Initially, hopes were high that Howard would bring more championships to the Lakers, following in the footsteps of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal himself. If there’s one thing the league’s most expensive franchise has prided itself on, it’s the ability to snag the best big man on the market. With the exception of Jabbar, the other illustrious centers on that list of legends all toiled fruitlessly until moving to Hollywood. Jabbar, for his part, had already tasted a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks before joining the Lakers.

Instead, Howard now joins the lineage of Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. A potent list nonetheless, but nowhere near the neighborhood of the Lakers elite. Malone was a high school phenom who played in the American Basketball Association, then played for the Rockets before taking his insane rebounding skills to the Philadelphia 76ers and helping Julius Erving win his only NBA title in 1983. Of course, they were helped along by an injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers line-up in the Finals. Olajuwon was a skinny soccer goalkeeper from Nigeria who was fattened up with steak and ice cream before taking the Rockets and Rudy Tomjanovich to two NBA trophies.

Perhaps Howard is more like Malone, a high school phenom with tremendous rebounding skills that translated to success in the NBA. The problem is if he’ll ever wait long enough to see the situation develop fully. There is still no clue if he and Harden will get along with each other on the floor. Oftentimes, strong big men create problems for good slashers. Their defender can double-team the driving teammate. If they leave the paint, they take themselves out of the rebounding and scoring picture. Case in point, the Rockets with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Eventually, T-Mac had to go.

There’s still much more drama ahead. Remember when the Lakers took in Karl Malone and Gary Payton in the hopes of winning more championships? It didn’t happen that way, either. Howard is hoping Houston will be his third team lucky. But if history provides any clue, it won’t happen right away, if at all.

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