Even if I wasn't a crazed Celtics fan, I think that their improbable ascension would be the number one storyline of the season so far. But I think that Dwight Howard easily takes the silver. It is impossible to follow the NBA and not read a glowing piece about Howard at least twice a week. And with good reason - he'd be MVP if the season ended today, and he just turned 22. That's impressive. But like with LeBron, it is often not the present that captivates us about Howard as much as the future - which seems so bright that it might blind the rest of the league. If James and Howard are so good now, it is absolutely horrifying to think about how superior they will be in their primes. I personally have used a measure of restraint in my praise of Howard - while using no restraint at all in praising James. LeBron, in my eyes, will win at least five titles unless he has a devastating injury. Dwight I'm hardly so sure about. And my reasoning for that is coldly traditional and perhaps antiquated.
Great centers are the easiest way to the title; it is why Dream or Oden will always be drafted ahead of MJ or Durant. This said, the art of low post basketball has all but evaporated from the NBA, as we lamented last week. Out of this desert arrives Howard. The Magic, even more than the Spurs with Duncan, seem to understand that the key to their success is to just get him the ball down low. As has been well documented recently, Dwight Howard has more dunks than most teams. You watch Orlando and have a sense of actual low post basketball. All this is super, and I commend Orlando and Howard for it, but I can't help but wonder if people are slightly miscasting Howard as a dominant center. Only a fool would say he is not dominant, but we so quickly assume Howard is a center just because he is usually the biggest guy out there. And this is where it gets tricky.
The true dominant NBA center controls the game around him, as everything is forced to revolve around his presence. From Russell to Duncan that is the case (Duncan is clearly a center, just because he can play power forward does not mask what he truly is.) The position not only requires size, but a particular knowledge of how to use it. That is why Duncan is called The Big Fundamental, because of his sublime understanding of how to use his body as a center. Conversely this gift was never given to KG, so he is a seven foot tall power forward, and has never been considered a legitimate center. I don't like to pigeonhole players, but in this case it is of major importance. For I view true centers the way Justice Stewart viewed obscenity - I know it when I see it.
And in Howard, at this stage, I'm not so sure I see it, which puts me in the minority. Just about everybody is referring to Dwight as the Modern Great Center, best articulated by Shoals in a must-read piece last week. The main gist of all the praise is that Howard is the perfect new age center; a beast that simply cannot be handled down low, but at the same time is agile and quick enough to outrun swingmen. The problem for me is that Howard still reminds me more of pre-surgery Amare than a true center, in other words a hellish power forward that is an impossible matchup problem, but nonetheless is really a power forward. What is wrong with that? Much more than you expect.
In the last 30 years there has been one team that has won the championship with a power forward as their best player. The '77-'78 Washington Bullets finished 44-38, but led by Elvin Hayes they won the Finals. Hayes happened to be flanked by Wes Unseld, which clearly helped matters. But besides from that fluky Bullets team, no squad has gone all the way with a power forward leading them. Meanwhile since 1977 we have seen Bill Walton, Kareem, Moses Malone, Olajuwon, Shaq and Duncan lead their respective teams to the Championship. This is hardly coincidental.
While great power forwards are unbelievable specimens of strength, power and athleticism, they lack the base quality of dominance that a true center possesses. Try as they might, power forwards still have to work around players; they aren't naturally the core of the sphere. Historically this has meant less overall dominance, and there is no reason to expect that to change. Karl Malone, Barkley, Shawn Kemp and Webber never won titles. Nowitzki, Amare and KG have yet to (we'll talk what all this means to the Celtics in a forthcoming post). McHale won several championships, but was the second star; and Rodman cannot even be considered a number two on those Pistons and Bulls teams.
So Howard best be a center. Otherwise with Otis Smith calling the shots down there I wouldn't be getting ready to win any titles, because it's unlikely he brings in anybody better than Howard. When Dwight came into the league he was considered a power forward; a monstrous power forward, but a four nonetheless. His scouting report has come to beautiful fruition, and I now wonder if we are asking him to do too much more. Howard has never had a polished inside game, but with his size there is question as to whether he needs one. It's a very good question. Still, Howard does not make me recall Shaq, but the old Amare and Kemp. Both of those guys were beasts; they simply would overpower you. Against the best competition they could still make the opponent look silly; Amare against San Antonio in '05 the most glaring example. But like with most power forwards, neither were ever able to get their team over the hump. Howard is bigger and taller than both Kemp and Amare, but their images do not leave my mind.
Howard should yearn more to be compared to Moses Malone, which indeed he often has. Moses came to the pros at 19 playing forward, where he was immediately dominate. As he filled out he became a center, despite being on the short side. Moses' post game was extremely crafty and refined, more so than we could ever hope Howard's to be. But like Howard, Moses was voracious on the boards and could indomitably carve out space to make opponents helpless on the offensive and defensive end. Their wild proclivity for offensive rebounding is strikingly similar, as is their precocious talent. Moses won MVP at the age of 23 while averaging 25 and 18 a game; Howard is doing similar things this season. Moses was just plain great, as his three MVP awards would attest. All that said, the forward turned center won only one Finals, and that was with Dr. J and friends along for the ride.
What Dwight has over Moses and almost all these other past dominate centers is his size; he is (much) bigger than almost all of them. The irony of Howard not being considered a center is he has a better body than his desired predecessors. This well might mean that it is only time before he develops into a true center. I wasn't around to see Moses do this in the seventies, however, so I have little idea how the evolution works. I guess that's why I'm so confused right now. I'm not sure becoming a center is developmental - perhaps either you are or are not. Yao came into the league a true center - he's improved leaps and bounds, but from his pro indoctrination we knew what he was. Howard is different.
But how different? Am I being foolish? Eric Neel certainly thinks so, and the reasons seem abundantly valid. When you are as big as Howard is, and as strong, how can you not be like Shaq? Especially in this day and age, where the post is so scantily guarded, and where seemingly no one is able to even remotely contain Howard. Twenty years ago you had to bang in the box, it was a minor war in there, a positioning minefield. Today Howard just waltzes into the paint, and jumps ridiculously high to receive and then score the ball. With the NBA clamping down on contact, there is no answer for Dwight. It is very easy to see why he reminds people of Shaq, perhaps the center that all others should be judged by.
So is this the new age center - has Mike D'Antoni's pipe dream come to its ultimate realization? I'm a progressive, I like thinking of revolution in the NBA, but there is a certain dogmatic formality to basketball that is impossible to dismiss. Therein actually lies its tranquil beauty - the space between things is perhaps what basketball is all about, and why center is the most important position on the court. Is Howard, with all his athletic brio, capable of falling into this unshakable paradigm? I don't have an answer, all I know is that I'm too leery to just accept it without seeing more first.
In closing it is worth remembering the basic truth that centers develop more slowly than other positional players. What you see at 22 is not at all what you will see at 29. If Howard is a center, that means we are just witnessing the beginning of the sunrise, and noon is not even conceivable yet. This point is far less radical if he is a power forward. It is safe to say that Howard's true position is one of the more important long term questions for fans of the NBA; along with whether LeBron will flee Cleveland, and whether Dwyane Wade will be able to stay healthy. A few years ago we touted Amare the way Howard is now being touted. They were both around the same age, and if anything Amare was more viscerally devastating. But Dwight is bigger, much bigger. And because of this size we are for the first time really having to consider the reality of the "modern" center, and whether it truly can exist. I will hold my doubts a while longer; certainly till the playoffs, when the lanes suddenly become tighter. But what is indisputable is that Dwight Howard is one of the more fascinating players in the game. And while there has never been a player like him, clarifying his lineage is of utmost importance.