Dwight Howard and Hakeem Olajuwon celebrate Dwight's gainful employment (Getty Images)
Over the last few years, NBA pundits asking why teams have yet to hire Basketball Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon as a full-time mentor has become sort of the “why don’t they make the entire plane out of the black box?” go-to line for the league’s long summer. Year after year, Hakeem has been reported to have worked with some of the NBA’s greats over the offseason for a stiff price, and his tutelage seems well within the price range for teams in a league that likes to spend nearly $6 million a year on an “average” player.
The Houston Rockets, beaming after signing the NBA’s best center in Dwight Howard, seem ready to take Olajuwon off the free agent market. Some 11 years after the team bid Hakeem adieu as he signed with the Toronto Raptors, the Rox are attempting to bring The Dream back to the town he worked in from 1980 to 2002, as a member of either the University of Houston Cougars or Houston Rockets.
Olajuwon’s duties and title are being discussed, and he will spend much of the year at his home in Jordan. But he will work with Rockets interior players, as he does with big men around the NBA each offseason, as a team employee.
“We are going to bring him in as full-time as is possible,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said Sunday. “It’s not done, but we have mutual interest to get it done, and we’ve had some early discussions.
“We want him to work with Dwight and Omer (Asik), and he wants to do that.”
Not only was Hakeem part of the pitch that helped land Howard in Houston, he also has worked with him twice before during two previous offseasons. Famously, others have taken to Dream’s hardwood classroom, with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Carmelo Anthony among others all spending time (and paying quite a few dimes) to Hakeem to teach them the ways of the low block.
Which is ironic, to a point. In his prime, Olajuwon’s work on the low left block was absolutely devastating; as he mixed a soft jump hook with a turnaround baseline jumper and all manner of spins and feints – including his famed “Dream Shake.” For years, though, Hakeem could be seen darting around the perimeter while working his way into that championship-winning prime. A college tutorial from Professor Moses Malone helped advance his studies in the early 1980s, but Hakeem still needed time to fully commit himself to working his way into the best low post center of the post Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era.
The best low post power forward of that era, Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale, will no doubt be on hand to ease in the transition. Howard chafed at the pick and roll stylings of coach Mike D’Antoni in Los Angeles last season, despite good numbers that resulted from his participation in the play. The Rockets are full of shooters that should give Dwight plenty of room to attempt his own left block goodness in Houston, but this observer hopes McHale doesn’t shy away from including Howard in the odd screen and roll from time to time.
Nobody likes low post play more than me, but this is a different era – far more complicated and well-rehearsed in comparison to McHale’s 1986 heyday, or Olajuwon’s title-winning runs in 1994 and 1995. Simply dumping the ball down low, no matter the spacing and movement around the low post killer, isn’t enough to guarantee 60 wins and a championship. The zone defense rules that were established in 1999 and again in 2001 make it so much tougher for a big man to dominate on his own, and though that style of play helped take Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals, that team had far better shooters than this year’s Houston Rockets.
This year’s Rockets should be a better overall team, though, which is why we’re merely asking for the Rockets to mix it up, and not fully submit to a re-made Howard that is all full of Olajuwon’s tutelage. If anything, the Rockets probably are keen to merely take Hakeem off the market, lest he spend a summer with Tiago Splitter, or teach Kendrick Perkins how to get his groove back. Considering the results Olajuwon has produced, we can’t blame the Rox.
Hakeem has never been keen to sit on the bench for 82 games a season, folding his frame into the long haul as an assistant coach, and we don’t blame him. This – with Hakeem bouncing from his original and adopted hometown, while counseling the NBA’s best center – seems like a happy medium. Only time will tell if it helps vault the Houston Rockets out of the medium reaches of the standings.
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