Dwight Howard’s on yet another “last chance” to turn his story around. Coming home to Atlanta last summer didn’t work. And after being traded to Charlotte earlier this summer, he’s looking to make the best of his opportunity with a coach, Steve Clifford, he’s got extensive history with dating back to their days together in Orlando. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN provides some context:
During this summer, Howard has lost a little weight, and a lot of anger. He has been humbled, unloaded out of his Atlanta homecoming only to now be re-engaged in possibility with Charlotte. Steve Clifford had driven 3½ hours to watch him work on a sultry summer day, and the coach of the Charlotte Hornetsrepresents something so important to Howard now. Clifford is a link to Howard’s glory days with the Orlando Magic, the rarest of NBA coaching species: He wanted Howard. He knows him, trusts him in his locker room and believes Howard can make an immense impact on the Hornets.
As much as anything, Howard craves acceptance, and that’s why his trade to Charlotte, to Clifford, has him believing all over again.
“Cliff’s going to push me, but he’s not going to ever be one of those guys who I would say would break my spirit,” Howard told ESPN. “He really believes in me. Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths.”
Clifford stands as Howard’s best, final lifeline to resurrect his good name. He’s the coach standing between Howard and a closing career chapter that threatens to transform him into a journeyman. For everything Howard has accomplished, that looms as an ending unfit for a Hall of Fame center.
At the end of each of the past two seasons, Howard felt unwanted with the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets. He felt miscast on the court and misunderstood off it. These are themes that seldom go away with Howard, that feed his insecurities and shape his responses to professional adversity.
“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.
“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”
This is classic Dwight Howard: an investment born of his best intentions, but ultimately counterproductive. These are private workouts, run by Howard’s own staff, and Clifford hadn’t made the seven-hour round trip to talk to Howard about 3-pointers. They have so much history together, with the Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers, and Clifford understands the ways to get the most out of Howard. Sometimes, it’s wisest to let Howard get his ideas — some well-meaning, some silly — out of his system, and prod him back to matters of importance.
Howard sees Clifford and thinks about the chance to recapture something lost, a time and place when he still used the Superman moniker. Once, Howard was the most dominant two-way force in basketball. He’s 31 years old, and 13 pro seasons have taken a toll on his knees. Clifford was on coach Stan Van Gundy’s bench as the top assistant for five years in Orlando. And now, with Charlotte, Clifford has developed a reputation as one of the NBA head coaches who gets more out of less. Clifford has wanted the Hornets to make a Howard trade for two years.
Hours earlier on that August afternoon, Clifford had climbed into his Mercedes SUV and started a drive down to Atlanta. Clifford steered through the state of South Carolina, past the Clemson University campus, and talked about an eight-time All-Star center whom he’s tasked with integrating into a roster that loves the idea of his arrival.
“He fits with our team, the way we play,” Clifford said on the drive. “So much of our [NBA] game has become a 3-point game, but most teams still get those shots from inside-out. To me, he still has a big paint presence at both ends of the floor. And his greater strengths remain the same: as a basket protector, as a rebounder, as a defensive organizer, great screener, can demand the ball in the paint [and] draw fouls. Those things don’t change at all.
“He’s not the same athlete he was when we first got to Orlando. But he’s much more experienced now. [I] still think there’s a lot of good basketball left in him.
“From the trade until now, I think he’s very motivated to have a great year, and he badly wants us to win. The last couple years have been difficult for him. I see him as motivated to work. The success of our team is the thing that keeps coming up in our conversations. He wants to be a part of our team. And that’s his priority.”