Every two weeks, the gents at Free Darko will be taking a look at the deranged ecosystem that is the National Basketball Association in their own indelible fashion. Here's this week's entry, from Bethlehem Shoals.
If you're surprised at the Orlando Magic's strong start, you haven't watched Dwight Howard this season. At various times in his young career, Howard's been overpowering, agile, immense, fluid, frightening and startling. Now, he's all that at once, and his NBA's buzz index has lept into the red. Henry Abbott's watching Howard every chance he gets — previously the kind of thing one said only about the Phoenix Suns — and Jack McCallum's giving him the royal treatment. I'm even returning to Eric Neel's 2006 claim that Howard, not Bron Bron, would hold the league's spine high over his head.
This holiday season, I'm downright thankful for Dwight Howard. Not just for the orgiastic basketball fury he's visited upon the entire league, but also for a more personal matter. See, Dwight Howard gave me the gift of life. You know those creepy statistics the radio's so fond of feeding you, about how by the time you die, you'll have spent 19 years asleep, or four stuck in traffic? Well, if you've been alive since the 21st century started, you've probably spent about three months being told how important Big Men are. And for once, I actually care that it's true.
In the NBA, there are big men, and then there are Big Men. Garnett, Amare and Chris Bosh all have height on their side, but they shrink in face of Tim Duncan, Yao or Shaq when the hamburger moon is full. I know that Big Men win championships, especially after watching Shaq and Duncan get rings as effortlessly as a river carving up stone. I also know that Big Men, no matter how dominant or skilled, are a liability for me as a viewer. I remember Young Shaq, Hakeem at his most lyrical, and David Robinson the one time he got loose. Base a team around a Big Man, though, and there's a good chance it'll be a drag.
While Shaq and Duncan are very different players, they have one thing in common: They've been the focal point of dynasties that were hard to watch. Unless Kobe grabbed the reins, the Lakers were methodical and predictable. The Spurs, as versatile as they've proven to be, still rely on throwing the ball down to Duncan and expecting him to deliver. I've never understood why, if an iso is anathema, endless posting up can satisfy the soul. Big Men are closer to the basket, which allows them to play a more simple, predictable version of the game. And, irony of all ironies, the very term "center" is a ceaseless reminder that everything exciting in basketball is a blow against its heritage.
Part of the reason the Suns felt so right in 2004 is that they'd effectively rejected the Big Man. D'Antoni replaced that role with Amare, a springy power forward who was usually going through or over the lane. When Stoudemire went down, Boris Diaw — an oversized point guard — took up that place in the starting line-up. How liberating it felt to experience the NBA without the long shadows of Duncan and Shaq falling over it. Granted, the Suns can't get past Duncan, and teams still lined up to lose games and grab Greg Oden. But at least Phoenix was a team devoid of center-lust, one who mustered up confidence despite having no Big Man. Certainly, this was more convincing than previous attempts by Garnett and Dirk to change the meaning of the seven-footer; both of them ended up stuck with lumbering stiffs by their side.
And yet what makes Howard so terrifying is that — at the risk of making no sense whatsoever — he's a Big Man with the same qualities as the Suns, a true center with all the dynamism of a fast break. It's almost like someone took the pre-surgery Stoudemire, added height and weight and made him learn to survive without Steve Nash. When Amare dunked, it was a split-second shock; Howard, on the other hand, constantly radiates energy and destruction. Watching Howard inch toward the hoop, biding his time until he pounces, is more exciting than most guards taking their man off the dribble. His whole body twitches with possibility, creating the illusion of activity even when, in purely spatial terms, there's very little.
Howard's Magic couldn't have a less inventive offense; Young Thunder rules the earth, sidekick Rashard Lewis strokes threes and occasionally puts it on the floor, and everyone else picks up the scraps. The point, though, is that it doesn't take a gimmick-y system for a team to entertain viewers. There's not such a hard and fast division between execution and fun, substance and style, or The Right Way and my couch. Any role on the floor can be animated, made into something breathtaking, if the right player gets handed it. If a player or team feels stifled, they have no one but themselves to blame. Or maybe nothing but their genes, since Howard's unlikely combination of size and flight seems like something out of the NFL combine.
That's why Orlando stays high in my League Pass rotation, as does New Orleans, who are similarly "old-fashioned" without ever courting blandness. The post-Jordan era taught us that imitators of MJ could make the game every bit as drab as the orthodoxy they rebelled against. Here's to the Dwight Howard, where the past wakes up and realizes it can stand tall in the present.