As the Washington Wizards’ season ended with Coach Scott Brooks calling for more three-pointers and John Wall crusading for an “athletic big” — a term which became the buzzword of the team’s summer — few pictured Dwight Howard as the answer.
Howard, who signed a two-year deal with the Wizards this month, joins a talented but underachieving roster as the missing piece. His past work might suggest a larger presence on a team that lacks star power — such as the Brooklyn Nets, who traded for Howard in June but instead agreed to a buyout so that he could find another home. In Washington, however, Howard will play an auxiliary role.
Howard has never averaged fewer than 12 points per game over his 14-year career, and he arrives as a center who can potentially draw defensive attention while in turn, opening up slivers of daylight on the perimeter for the Wizards’ reticent shooters. He’ll be the rebounder who starts fast breaks or the 6-foot-11 brawny obstacle who sets screens in pick-and-roll plays and storms to paint for passes launched at the rim.
At least, this is how the Wizards envision Howard fitting. And it’s a role that Howard seemingly accepts.
“Whatever’s needed, I’m available,” Howard said. “I’m willing to do it.”
Though Washington has shooters in Bradley Beal, who has twice competed in the all-star three-point contest, and the efficient Otto Porter Jr., who finished third in the NBA with a .441 percentage from the arc, the team did not hoist as many threes last year as Brooks desired. Heading into the 2018-19 season, the theory is that Washington can put four shooters around Howard, whose presence alone will attract eyes to the interior.
“What he brings to our team, you don’t just find off the street,” said Brooks, who will be entering his third season as the Wizards’ head coach. “It’s a high-level player. It’s a player that does so many things on the defensive end and a player that does so many things offensively. We want to shoot more threes and by having him on our team, it allows us to get more threes because you have to pay attention to his athleticism, his ability to finish at the rim. He’s a great screen-setter.”
Brooks and Howard met in Los Angeles last week. Their conversation lasted for a few hours, according to Brooks’s recollection, and focused on the upcoming season. Like any player, Howard has spent the offseason working on expanding his individual game but the Wizards will need a more fundamental skill set.
“He accomplished a lot as a player,” Brooks said. “He has a [chance] to go down as one of the best bigs of the game, now it’s about just winning and we talked about that. Everything that we talked about is always about team.”
Howard spent his early career in Orlando paired with steady point guards in Steve Francis and Jameer Nelson and shared a Sports Illustrated cover with future Hall of Famer Steve Nash before a rocky tenure for both in Los Angeles. But he has never played with an all-star backcourt like Wall and Beal. In Porter and reserves such as Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers — a pair of young players entering a contract year — Howard will also be surrounded by depth on the wing.
With so many capable scorers and only one ball, roles will have to be defined and big individual nights may be limited.
“You never go through an 82-game season when everybody’s happy. Everybody doesn’t get a medal and a ribbon and my job is to understand that we have to spread everything around and not everybody’s going to have a big night,” Brooks said. “There’s going to be some nights that Dwight gets 30 and there’s going to be some nights that he gets eight but his focus is about being competitive and winning games.”
Howard, the eight-point scoring decoy. Not exactly the job one might expect from a player who was voted into the All-Star Game in eight consecutive seasons. Nevertheless, unlike his predecessor Marcin Gortat, Howard will not always play in the background.
Whenever Gortat was brought up during Howard’s introductory news conference on Monday, his name was treated with deference. However as Brooks refused to “compare and contrast” the players, he still highlighted the simple evidence that separates the two players. Gortat’s primary objective with the Wizards might have been setting screens, which he did with aplomb, but Howard can do much more.
“March is having a heck of a career. Dwight Howard is an eight-time all-star, three-time defensive player of the year,” Brooks said. “He’s obviously has done a lot of things, a lot of good things, for a lot of teams and a lot of coaches. Are we going to change our entire offense? Our offense is pretty good. We’re third or fourth in the league in assists.
“We want to play different,” Brooks continued, further explaining how the 2018-19 Wizards will look with Howard. “Not necessarily an overhaul but we want to take advantage of his skill set. He’s one of the best finishers around the rim. He’s a guy, he can catch lobs. I joked with John last week. A lot of his bad passes aren’t going to be turnovers because he’s going to be able to throw it two feet above the rim and [Howard’s] going to be able to catch it.
“He can play the game,” Brooks said, “the way we need to play.”