Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford would love to see what sort of damage center Dwight Howard could do in a playoff series, come late April and early May.
It would be fun; it’s been forever since a player of Howard’s playoff resume (10 appearances, including the 2009 run with Orlando to the NBA Finals) has been part of the local NBA team. However, a prerequisite to participation in late April is productivity in late January. Right now, the Hornets are running out of graces.
They lost to the New Orleans Pelicans at home Wednesday, 101-96. There is certainly no shame in losing to these Pelicans, who at 26-21 look like a playoff team in the Western Conference.
But considering the 19-27 Hornets’ narrow margin for error, the pattern of wasted opportunity is going to bite them. This five-game homestand was supposed to be essential to saving this season. Now they can finish no better than 3-2, before playing 10 of the next 12 away from Spectrum Center. The road record this season – 6-13 so far – is ominous.
This is a game they could have, and should have, won. The Pelicans’ two elite big men, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, average a combined 53 points this season. Wednesday, the Hornets contained those two to a combined 35. Howard was actually this game’s premier big man, finishing with 22 points and 16 rebounds. He made nine of his 16 shots from the field.
This was Howard’s 1,000th NBA game. The 34,000-some minutes that make up his career have taken a toll. He had major back surgery when he was still playing for the team that drafted him, the Magic. He has had a balky knee all the way back to high school in Atlanta. But he perseveres; this was his 16th game of 20 or more points this season, his 35th of 10 or more rebounds.
Trading for Howard last June was risky business; not because of what they gave up (discarding Miles Plumlee’s contract was a perk, really), but because of the massive salaries remaining on Howard’s contract. The Hornets agreed to pay him in excess of $23 million this season, and slightly more next season, on the prospect that Howard’s previous relationship with Clifford in Orlando and Los Angeles (Lakers) would be beneficial.
For all the disappointments this season, Howard has been a major plus. The thing that has impressed me most is his ability to string together strong performances. In Monday’s victory over the Sacramento Kings, Howard matched a season high with six blocked shots. The Hornets were off from practice Tuesday, and Howard came back fresh for the challenge of guarding Cousins, who – in Clifford’s assessment – is one of the 10 best basketball players in the world.
We all knew Howard’s liabilities coming into this season: He would miss a bunch of free throws (53 percent for the season). He would commit a bunch of turnovers (3.04 per game, 12th most in the NBA this season). He would lose his temper at inopportune times (10 technical fouls so far, six away from a one-game suspension under league rules).
With all that in tow, he has still been a major net plus, well beyond what I anticipated when they acquired him from the Atlanta Hawks. He did a tremendous job over the summer of training for this season. Perhaps someone he respects convinced him he was sacrificing his legacy. Maybe he figured that out on his own. Whatever, he has generally been professional and productive here. There is no evidence so far that won’t also be the case next season.
“It’s a testament to how well he’s taken care of himself,” Clifford said of Howard being so good still 1,000 games into his career. “It just speaks to how badly he wants to keep playing at a high level and the amount of extra work he does. Not just in basketball, but to keep his body (fresh), so that he can play the way he does.”
Clifford was an Orlando assistant to coach Stan Van Gundy when Howard led the Magic to the Eastern Conference championship in 2009. Ultimately, the Lakers beat Howard’s Magic in five games, and Howard’s departure from Central Florida became known as the “Dwightmare.” But Clifford’s recollection of what Howard is capable of in the postseason is heavy stuff.
“He’s a playoffs player,” Clifford reminded. “There are guys in this league who are regular-season players – which you need – and there are guys that you’re going to win in the playoffs with.
“If you put him in a six- or seven-game series, that’s how we got to the finals in the Eastern Conference, because he wears people out.”
Can’t see this team doing much damage as an eighth or seventh seed, but Clifford’s right:
The prospect of May basketball, with a future Hall of Famer in the middle, sure sounds fun.