Dwight Howard said all the right things.
The 76ers’ new reserve center was complimentary of the team’s cornerstones, All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. He spoke of doing whatever it takes to help the Sixers win. And the 17-year veteran talked of mentoring Embiid not just through words but with actions.
“You know, in order to have longevity in this league, you have to work hard every day and sacrifice,” Howard said during Wednesday’s introductory Zoom call. “That’s what it takes to win, and I’m looking forward to kind of showing and helping these young guys see [that] sacrifice and doing whatever it takes to win can take you a long way.”
Howard’s 22-minute media availability gave you a sense of why the Sixers, led by coach Doc Rivers, aggressively recruited him shortly after free agency began at 6 p.m. on Nov. 20. The soon-to-be-35-year-old is still in great shape and one of the NBA’s premier centers. Not only is he the league’s best backup, he’ll be a solid fill-in on the nights Embiid doesn’t play.
But his biggest attribute could come from sharing what he has learned over the years.
No one questions Howard’s ability. The 6-foot-10 and chiseled 265-pounder has Hall of Fame talent and a great resume.
The Atlanta native was the first overall pick in the 2004 draft, by the Orlando Magic out of high school. He’s an eight-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA first-teamer, three-time defensive player of the year; four-time All-Defense first-teamer; five rebounding titles, two shot-block titles, and just became a first-time NBA champion. And you can’t forget that he was the 2008 slam dunk champion.
Yet, Howard has had a reputation of being a bad teammate, who joked around too much, and wasn’t focused on winning. He’s also been blamed for one coach losing his job.
With the Magicon April 5, 2012, he interrupted an interview as his then-coach Stan Van Gundy told a reporter that Howard wanted him fired. Howard hugged Van Gundy and denied he said that. Van Gundy was eventually fired on May 21, 2012, and Howard still demanded a trade.
He was traded to the Lakers, but didn’t get along with Kobe Bryant.
The late Hall of Famer questioned if Howard had what it takes to be a champion. Howard also got into a heated on-court exchange with Lakers point guard Steve Nash during a game against the Miami Heat that season.
Howard left at season’s end and signed a three-year deal with the Houston Rockets. At that time, Daryl Morey, now the Sixers’ president of basketball operations, was the Rockets’ general manager. But, like in Los Angeles with Bryant, Howard didn’t see eye to eye with James Harden, the Rockets franchise player. An ESPN report described his relationship with Harden as “cordially bad.”
After three seasons in Houston, Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks on July 12, 2016, only to be traded to the Charlotte Hornets on June 20, 2017. The Hornets, on July 6, 2018,traded him to the Brooklyn Nets, who waived Howard a month and a day later.
In Atlanta, some teammates questioned his effort. In Charlotte, he rubbed several of his teammates and coaches the wrong way.
But four days after being waived by the Nets, Howard signed with the Washington Wizards. He played in just nine games that season because of injuries. In a move to save $3.1 million in payroll, the Wizards traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies on July 6, 2019. He never played for the Grizzlies, who waived him on Aug. 24, 2019.
Back then, there was a pattern. There was plenty of excitement and lofty expectations when he arrived to teams. But he had many similar disappointing departures.
But things changed last season.
He signed a one-year, non-guaranteed deal to return to the Lakers. This time around, the expectations were different. Back in 2012, they expected him to be the franchise center who would co-star with Bryant to win another championship. Last summer, they just needed him to be a role player on a roster centered around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
He thrived in that pressure-free role and was accepted by his teammates.
Howard averaged career lows of 7.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks as the Lakers’ backup center. Yet it was his most gratifying season in that he won an NBA title.
There were games in which he scored buckets and there were other games that he didn’t play at all. Yet he’s an NBA champion.
“So, what really matters is holding up that trophy,” Howard said. “And that would be my message to everybody on the team. What are you willing to give up to get the trophy?”
The Lakers needed him for a specific purpose, to provide spirit and energy on and off the court. The guy who many felt couldn’t be a good teammate did a solid job.
“Whatever this team needs me to do, I’ll do,” he said of the Sixers.
Howard said team unity, commitment to a common goal, and maintaining focus spearheaded the Lakers’ championship run.
In addition to stressing those things with the Sixers, Howard is determined to help Embiid become the best he can be.
“Showing him some of the things that I learned over the years, the pitfalls, the things that bring you down,” he said, “and also that really [elevate] you up. Not just doing that through words, really through my actions.”
Like Howard in his early years, there’s a perception that Embiid prefers to be more of a fun-loving celebrity who trolls opponents on social media than a worker who puts in the necessary time needed to win a championship. The three-time All-Star’s actions were even described as goofy by one reporter.
But Howard doesn’t see Embiid as goofy.
“I think the things that Joel does are great,” he said. “It makes the other opponents upset.”
Howard added that Embiid’s antics keep him locked in, and his teammates feed off him. Howard knows there will be times when everyone must be serious.
“I think that’s just part of understanding time and place,” Howard said. “I think that would be good for me to help show some of the younger guys because I’ve been in that position before, where people thought I wasn’t focused or I was playing [around] too much.
“Maybe from the people on the outside, it did look like I was playing too much,” Howard said.
His stint in Philly could continue to help change how he’s perceived while benefitting the Sixers.