Dwight Howard has been in this league for nine and a half years, and for nine and a half years he’s had to answer myriad annoying (if appropriate) questions about his off the court influences, his issues with coaching staffs and front offices, and the seemingly endless charade that was his two-year dalliance with free agency. Through all of that term, though, one constant question has stuck out: Hey Dwight, whaddya think about your pretty awful free throw shooting?
Now a Houston Rocket, Dwight is shooting 47 percent, which would be the worst mark of his career, and a full 20 percentage points lower than the best mark of his career (67 percent) that he notched in his rookie season. He’s also shot 87 free throw attempts on the young season, which has him on pace to lead the league in free throw attempts for the fifth time in his career – a function of both his game, and the “Hack-a-Dwight” strategy teams utilize to send his every-other-try-is-a-make free throw percentage to the line on purpose.
Howard, in the aftermath of a 4-12 showing at the line in a win over Toronto on Monday, has just about had it up to here with the questions. Or, “up to hear,” I suppose. From the Houston Chronicle’s Jenny Dial Creech:
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Howard said. “So much has been talked about free throws, just let it go. We talk about it so much, I think about it at the line. I don’t want to think about it. I want to shoot.
“That’s what I do in practice. I shoot in practice and I don’t miss because I am not thinking about it.”
It’s true that some of the worst notable free throw shooters of all time – Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain included – were fabulous free throw practitioners away from the glare. That’s not to say that all three were terrible chokers when it came time to try the things in games, because it’s not nearly the same thing. Even if the crowds weren’t around, and the cameras weren’t rolling, and even if the score didn’t matter – there’s a huge difference between settling in for a half-hour to shoot 100 free throws over and over, and running up and down the court for two and a half hours, interspaced with a weird seven or eight trips to the line in between. And you can only take two at once. No practice attempts.
It’s also especially tough for someone, like Howard, that doesn’t have that muscle memory as a shooter to go back to.
Not only is it easier for guards and forwards to shoot free throws because of their height (big men like Howard have their hands essentially at rim level after following through, so it’s hard to create the perfect arc), but they have the benefit of having tried out a few jumpers in game action. It’s why big men like Jack Sikma, Patrick Ewing, or even the orthodoxy-baiting Joakim Noah have been such successful free throw shooters at the center position.
That isn’t to say Howard’s fundamentals are on point, despite all that practice. His left hand covers far too much of the ball, and he rushes things while at the line. And at (maybe) 6-10, he doesn’t have the 7-footer excuse that Shaq and Wilt had. Even nearly a decade into his pro career, Howard really needs to reboot the whole exercise.
Still, though the Rockets have lost some games that they probably shouldn’t have, Howard is working his way back to his expected role as the game’s top center. And because he’s insecure in the face of all these missed free throws, and all these follow-up questions, Dwight mentioned as much to the Chronicle:
“I get in the game and I think so much that I tend to miss,” Howard said. “The best thing to do is to let it go. If I make it, I make it. If I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. Even if I do miss, I will be out on the other end, playing defense, getting rebounds, blocking shots and paying back for fouling in that way.”
Howard is averaging 14.9 rebounds a game, just a tick under Kevin Love’s league-leading 15 a contest, along with 17.6 points and nearly two blocks a game (fellow center Omer Asik steals some of that real estate in Houston’s iffy-so-far twin towers lineup). He is looking healthier, and it’s also important to note that these Rockets are far from a finished product.
There is still uncertainty up front with Asik’s presence next to Howard, as the team’s offense has suffered mightily with the two working in tandem. The change may not be permanent, but against smaller upcoming opponents like the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks, trap games if there ever were ones, Houston coach Kevin McHale is sitting Asik and playing 6-8 forward Terrence Jones up front. The iffyness extends to the backcourt, too, where both Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin have been wildly inconsistent either starting or coming off the bench, alternating good or even great games with terrible ones, never at the same time. And James Harden is still quite the embarrassment on defense.
Houston knew this entering the season, understanding that it would take a full year to sort out these rotation, playbook, health and confidence issues. They know that April and May count the most. Or even June, if they’re good enough.
Howard’s free throws? Those won’t sort themselves out. Between his role on the team, his style of play, the increased attention and those dodgy mechanics, he has too much working against him.
And he’s going to have to get used to more and more questions about the darn things.
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