The backup center position was a need that the Sixers miscalculated ever since they traded away Richaun Holmes in a deal that never quite made sense. They signed Amir Johnson twice, traded for Boban Marjanovic, and signed Greg Monroe. To put a glaring bow on their misjudgment of the backup center spot, they gave Al Horford $97 million guaranteed and tried to force a square peg into a circle by playing him at power forward next to Joel Embiid. Under new management, the Sixers correctly identified what they need in a backup center–a human pogo stick that can protect the rim without needing the ball on offense or playing significant minutes in Dwight Howard.
They signed the future Hall-of-Famer to a one-year, $2.6 million deal on the first night of free agency. Howard, fresh off of winning his first championship with the Lakers, was introduced to the media yesterday. Dwight made it clear that he is extremely excited to join the 76ers and has high expectations for this season’s group.
“I would always tell people how great I think this team can be.”
Howard was up-front with his praise for the franchise, saying, “I’m super excited about joining. It’s a team I’ve watched for the last couple of years. I would always tell people how great I think this team can be. Now we’re here, so I’m very excited to be part of the organization.”
Dwight’s excitement stems farther than the opportunity on the court, reaching as far as continuing previously-established relationships. Howard talked about reuniting with Daryl Morey: “Me and Daryl go all the way back to Houston, and it’s great seeing us back together. Our time in Houston, we thought we had a chance to win the championship. It wasn’t the right time. I believe that both of us are in great places, physically, mentally, and spiritually. This is a great opportunity for us to win the championship together.”
Evidently, the big man feels that he and the President of Basketball Operations have some unfinished business. He thinks that now is the right time to accomplish what they set out to do years ago.
“I think this is the year where it’s all about being focused”
Howard isn’t just spitting out words without backing. He truly believes that this team can win a championship. He pointed to the foundational pieces when asked why he thought the team could win:
“You have two great young stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Those guys, to me, I watched when Joel lost and how bad it hurt. He just cried, and I know what that feels like. I’ve been in that moment before, where it’s like ‘man I gave everything I had. I put it all on the line and came up short’. It doesn’t sit well with you, and it stays with you for a very long time. I know he has the fire inside of him. We’ve all seen glimpses of it. I think this is the year where it’s about being focused; I see focus in him, I see focus in Ben. That’s where it starts, with our two best players.”
Howard continued, “You look at the rest of the guys on the team–they’ve all been hungry, they just never knew how to win. I think adding a guy like Danny Green and myself, we’re fresh off winning a championship. We all know what it takes to really get to the next level. I think it’s a really great opportunity. You have a coach who is always talking about winning, how important it is to win, and you got some players who just won. I think that this year, with the focus this team will have, with the drive that we have to be successful, this will be our year.”
“What really matters is holding up that trophy. That would be my message to everybody on the team.”
Howard was as decorated a big man as the league had up until a few years ago. With injuries and bad reputation making him an undesirable piece, Howard had to step back and recreate his value. That meant buying into a reduced role. Winning a championship, Howard says, validated that buy-in:
“Winning a championship was everything,” Howard said. “It made me realize I can have the best stats in the world, and it don’t mean nothing. I won a championship, and there were games where I didn’t score a bucket or get a field goal or get minutes in the game. What really matters is holding up that trophy. That would be my message to everybody on the team. ‘What are you willing to give up to get the trophy?'”
Howard has become familiar with sacrificing accolades for the sake of holding up the Larry O’Brien trophy.
“Sometimes you gotta give up everything”
Howard continued to talk on sacrifice: “Sometimes you gotta give up everything, sometimes your role requires you to give up what you want to do the most. For me, I would love to be that guy to score all the points, to get all the rebounds. But, my team needed me for one specific purpose–to provide the spirit and the energy, on and off the court. I think I did a good job of it, and whatever this team asks of me, I’m willing to do it.”
Dwight knows that he isn’t here to be a starter. He has reshaped his mentality to maximize his play within the role assigned to him. He knows that maximizing Joel Embiid is the key to this group winning a title, and he’s ready to do whatever maximizing Embiid might entail:
“Whatever it takes to win,” Howard said. “I know that Joel is the star center, and I’m not trying to come in and take his job. But, I’ve been playing in this league so long and being a center, I just want to be the best I can for him. Just showing him some of the things I’ve learned over the years, the things that can bring you down. But also the things that can really lift you up. Not just the words, but actions. Showing them how to have longevity in this league, you have to work hard every day, sacrifice. That’s what it takes to win. I’m looking forward to helping these young guys see that sacrifice, doing whatever it takes to win, can take you a long way.”
Dwight Howard’s championship experience afforded him many valuable lessons, with buying into a reduced role being just the tip of the iceberg. He wants to bring more than that on-court role to the Sixers. The former all-star wants to provide spiritual leadership, as well.
“We got to keep our eyes on the prize. I think that if we do that this year, I don’t see nobody stopping us and beating us in a seven-game series.”
Beyond rebounds, blocked shots, and thunderous dunks, Dwight Howard wants to profess those lessons that come with championship experience. Howard spoke of two very important components that separate playoff teams from championship teams: “I think the biggest thing is just unity and focus. We were on the same page no matter what it was. That’s where it starts; it starts with unity, one common goal. I feel like me and Danny witnessed that. We saw just being on the same page, how powerful that is–both on the court and off the court.”
Dwight then introduced a new component: “Focus–it’s easy to lose focus during the NBA season, from the traveling to family, friends, different situations. One thing the bubble taught us is focus. We got to keep our eyes on the prize. I think that if we do that this year, I don’t see nobody stopping us and beating us in a seven-game series. We have the talent, we have the great coaching staff, we have the will, I feel like we have the championship pedigree. Not only to get over the hump in the East, but to win a championship.”
Howard knows the dangers of losing focus of the prize. He wants to help Ben Simmons and Embiid avoid that trap.
“The road to the championship is narrow, is thin. If you waver off just a little bit, it’ll kick you back to the beginning.”
Howard has followed the Sixers for some time, and believes he can provide wisdom to a young core that has fallen short of its collective ceiling in two consecutive years. He said:
“I think they had a taste of the playoffs and how hard you have to play every single night. How taxing the playoffs are on your body and your mind. I believe that as someone that has been in the league so long, you don’t want to have to go through all those steps to get to the top. It’s a straight, narrow path. It’s a lot of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. You cannot allow nothing to get you off your focus. The road to the championship is narrow, is thin. If you waver off just a little bit, it’ll kick you back to the beginning. I’ve had an opportunity to play in the Finals when I was in Orlando, and it took eleven years to get back to the Finals.”
Dwight wants to impart valuable wisdom on the two young stars. His message was simple: “I want those guys to know that nothing is promised, so while you have the opportunity to get to the top and be a champion, don’t take it for granted. Some guys have never been to the Finals, some guys have never been to the playoffs, some guys have never won championships. It is one of the hardest things to do in your basketball career. It’s about staying locked in and not jumping off the road for anybody. Stay locked in on the goal.”
Howard has first-hand knowledge of the power of staying locked in. After all, there wasn’t much else to do in the Disney bubble other than prepare for the next game.
“For me, in the past, the things that hindered me was my ego and injuries.”
Howard thinks that a lot of the misfortune he’s experienced in his NBA career applies to the Sixers. He wants to help the team avoid the same issues that hindered the middle years of his career. Howard said, “I would say a problem that has happened across the NBA with a lot of teams–everybody wants to be that guy, that person to do everything. Why wouldn’t you want to be that person? Everyone’s goal is different when they come in the league–to make money, to be at the top. What’s your reason for playing basketball? For the team that wins, their reason is ‘to win a championship’. That is the approach we have to have this year. We have one goal and one mission, and that is to win the championship.”
Dwight is all too familiar with how that desire to be the alpha dog can lead to a player’s downfall. He spoke of some of the things that stunted his success:
“For me in the past, the things that hindered me was my ego and injuries. The two major components of a team of players not being able to reach their full potential. In order for us to win, we have to put everything to the side for the name on the front of our jerseys. The other part is staying healthy. We gotta make sure we eat properly, get the proper amount of rest, that we don’t overdo it. Trust in each other. I think by doing that, with this team we have, and Joel being one of the best bigs in this league. Also, you have Ben Simmons coming back off the injury. I think we have the tools and the talent, but we also have the right coaching staff, to put this team over the hump.”
Dwight believes that the franchise is in a good place to win a title, and he feels as though he was meant to be in Philadelphia.
“‘This is where I need to be right now. This is where my journey is calling me to be right now, in Philly’.”
Dwight paid respects to legendary center Wilt Chamberlain, even citing his love for the big man as a reason that he felt he was meant to come to Philly. He said, “I believe this is our year. It’s been a long time since 1983. I think it’s time we hoist up another banner here in Philly. Wilt Chamberlain is my favorite ever in life. He’s the only player I’ve ever wanted to meet in my whole life, and he played for the 76ers. So, this is a great honor for me to play for a team that my favorite player played for. I want to give this city, my team, and Wilt Chamberlain, and I know he’s watching, and, hopefully, we can hold up that trophy.”
Howard even revealed some of the details of his recruiting process: “The reason why I was super locked in on being here in Philly is that Doc was the only coach who called me during this free agency process. The first one to call me. He said, ‘We want you, we want you on our team’. Then, Daryl called. I said, ‘This is where I need to be right now. This is where my journey is calling me to be right now, in Philly’. I’m super glad Doc called me. I talked to Rondo. Rondo was probably a big contributor, just talking to me, and the relationship he had with Doc. I would say Doc, and also Elton Brand.”
Dwight Howard’s story is a cautionary tale for young players. The beauty of his talent as a rebounder is that it has a metaphorical application to the story of his career. Dwight wants to help the young stars on the 76ers avoid having to fight for metaphorical rebounds.