Juwan Howard accepted the shift from power forward to small forward the past two seasons, saying again and again that he would do whatever the Washington Wizards asked him to do. But Wednesday night when he was switched back to the position he has played most of his life, his confidence seemed to grow even before the opening tip against the Toronto Raptors.
Michael Smith's injury gave Howard the chance to return to his favorite position, and he responded by making 11 of his 15 shots and scoring 22 points. As with his dazzling finish against the Indiana Pacers last Friday, when he scored a season-high 36 points while playing mostly power forward, Howard operated as if he was unstoppable.
But Smith, who has been suffering from a strained right elbow, is expected to return to the lineup Saturday when the Cleveland Cavaliers come to MCI Center. That means Howard probably will be back at small forward.
"It was great," Howard said of playing power forward. "It would have been nice to finish the game that way. I bounced back and forth, but it felt good."
Howard's performance in a 120-105 loss to Toronto added fuel to the debate as to whether he is better suited at small forward or power forward. Playing predominantly at small forward, Howard has registered the lowest scoring (15.1 average per game) and rebounding (4.9) totals of his career. He entered the season averaging 19.3 points and 7.9 rebounds in five previous NBA seasons.
Howard has made it known he would prefer playing power forward. He cites a change in strategy this season, one in which the offense is spread more evenly, as the main reason for his diminishing returns.
"Things could be better," Howard said. "It's all about [opportunities]. Every ballplayer in this league would like to have more [opportunities], but it's a team game, so you have to make sacrifices for the team."
Howard played small forward most of last season alongside power forward Otis Thorpe. Unlike this season, Howard did not make an issue of not playing where he feels most comfortable.
"I played a post-up [small forward]," said Howard, who averaged 18.9 points and 8.1 rebounds last season. "Once Otis came out of the game, I moved to [power forward]. We had a set rotation.
"We don't have that as much now. [Coach Gar Heard] is trying to find some minutes, sparingly, to get me in at [power forward]. In the past it was more consistent. I'd start at small forward and play a lot of power forward. Now it's not as consistent."
After coaching against Howard for years, Heard, upon his hiring last summer, said Howard was better suited for at small forward in his system. Heard's thinking has not changed.
Heard said he calls post-up plays for Howard. Heard also noted that most teams play their power forwards against Howard when Washington is on offense. Howard has to defend opposing small forwards, and Heard said Howard has held his own.
"He feels more comfortable at power forward, and I can understand that because that's the position he's been playing all his life," Heard said. "We're trying to get him minutes there."
Even before Howard's first start at power forward against Toronto, Howard has played the position more of late when Heard uses a lineup that features Tracy Murray at small forward.
"As a coach, I like to play a guy to his strengths," Heard said. "The one thing I've learned when I was playing basketball was that you're a basketball player first, not necessarily a position player. I know we'll get the best out of Juwan no matter where we play him."
Because of Heard's decision to play Howard at small forward, the coach and General Manager Wes Unseld formed a team loaded with power forwards and shallow at small forwards. Howard and Murray are the only small forwards. Smith, Aaron Williams, Gerard King and Lorenzo Williams make power forward the Wizards' deepest position.
"I've learned over the past 43 games that's how it's going to be because we're shorthanded at [small forward]," Howard said. "I've just got to continue playing and do what's best for the team."