Dwight Howard promised he would become more of a leader on the floor. On the West Coast trip, he did just that. Brian Kersey/Newscom/PicApp
The development of Dwight Howard will continue to be one of the running subplots of this season. We knew it at the beginning of the year that Orlando would only go as far as its now 25-year-old franchise center would take it. A whole lot this summer was made (and is continuing to be made) about Howard's offensive development. His patience in the post and scoring output is up from last year as he continues to take advantage of teams single covering him.
The improvement has pushed Howard to the top of the pile in the early MVP balloting. How to define MVP is always up for debate and the catcalls for Howard receiving a "lifetime achievement" MVP award or a "Let's not pick LeBron or Kobe this year" MVP award have already begun. But Howard is slowly beginning to embody what makes an MVP.
He is already an indispensable player and a guy who changes the game by his mere presence. His offensive game has developed to the point where the team can rely on him to score points (his 57.7 shooting from the field and career-high 28.9 percent usage rate heading into Tuesday's game are evidence of that). Take him off this team and Orlando is hardly a playoff team, let alone competing for a title.
Howard's other big focus this season was his demeanor on the court and in the locker room.
Everyone remembers the Sports Illustrated cover that asked if Howard could get serious. He and his team proceeded to make a surprise run to the NBA Finals. But Howard vowed at the beginning of the season to be demonstrably a little more serious on the floor. Gone has been the Magic Show and the joking before tip off (he isn't hurling balls toward the rim underhand from half court like he used to).
Howard has been trying to get to that next level off the court and become a better leader. It has been something that has been more and more evident during this West Coast road trip.
Howard carried (almost literally) the Magic with 39 points in a loss to the Trail Blazers. Afterwards he called out his team for a lack of toughness when Portland stormed to the lead early in the third quarter. Brian Schmitz of The Orlando Sentinel lauded Howard for it.
"All too often -- way too often, actually -- it is coach Stan Van Gundy who has been the voice out of the lockeroom," Schmitz wrote back on Dec. 10. "And when it is not Stan, it sometimes is the media who weighs in. But that’s the duty of your leader and, often, your best player."
It is always arguable when any player talks like this about his team. There are plenty who think this kind of talk should be kept behind closed doors. But it was an important statement coming from the generally good-natured Howard. He expects more from his team. And it was Howard who preached patience pregame in Los Angeles after Orlando struggled in Utah.
Howard scored 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting, hitting 5 for 10 from the foul line and grabbing three rebounds. That would be a 69.1% true shooting percentage (according to the Advanced Stats Calculator) and for that game, Howard posted a 40.2 percent usage rate according to HoopData and a 90 point defensive rating to go with his 120 point offensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.
Some pretty strong numbers for Howard in that game.
In Denver, he was frustrated and stymied by Nene as the game got out of control. It was a lesson in how far Howard still has to go to becoming the type of calming presence Orlando needs him to be as their leader on the floor. And like in the Utah game, his actions did not match the words he used or his status on the team. This losing slide (now up to five of the last six) is as much a test of Howard's leadership abilities as it is a measure of exactly what this team can do and how it will mesh together.
Howard is finally becoming the guy Orlando relies on late in games and when the team needs a basket or to get out of a rut. We are seeing already how Howard's presence and his ability to get easy buckets in the post have something of a calming effect on the team. His ability to do that has shown how much he has stepped up as a leader.
But for Orlando to get where it wants to go, it will need more from its center. The Magic will need Howard to be the guy leading the conversations and pushing his teammates to get better. And, yes, that sometimes means his team will need him to carry him. And that may sometimes mean he has to call players -- and friends -- out publicly.
What happened Tuesday night in Denver is not the kind of effort Howard, as a team leader, can allow his team to put forward. Howard still has a lot of maturation and leadership skills to develop.
Howard better be up for the challenge.