Howard's lackluster effort suppresses potential

March 29, 2012

NEW YORK — Never one to mince words, Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was both livid and candid after his team’s 108-86 loss to the New York Knicks on Wednesday night. And rather than attribute the blowout to one thing, he chose to blame it on everything.

“We were awful,” a brusque Van Gundy said. “You could go to everything — we were terrible. . . . We turned it over too much. We didn’t rebound. We didn’t guard, and we didn’t move the ball. We didn’t make shots, and they did.”

But in his frank evaluation of the team’s one-sided loss — one that really wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated — he stopped short of blaming the person who, perhaps, was most responsible for his team’s half-hearted attempt at professional basketball in front of a frenzied house at Madison Square Garden.

Center Dwight Howard, whose free-agency saga has cast a cloud over the Magic locker room all season, scored only 12 points on Wednesday — nine below his season average — and had more turnovers (six) than rebounds (five). He looked disengaged and aloof at times against the shorthanded Knicks, who were playing without starting point guard Jeremy Lin and star big man Amar’e Stoudemire.

The residual effect on Howard's teammates was unquestionable.

The Magic were overwhelmed on the glass 49-34 by a team that was essentially starting three guards. Howard, the league’s leading rebounder at 14.5 per night, was as inactive on the boards as he has been all season. It was the star big man’s second-worst rebounding performance of the season — he had only four in a victory over Sacramento in January — and it was only the ninth time he’d been held to single digits all year.

Howard had only one rebound and five turnovers in the telltale third quarter, when the Knicks’ lead ballooned to as many as 39 points. For the game, five Knicks players — Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert and Josh Harrellson — had as many or more rebounds than Howard.

Van Gundy didn’t directly call out Howard for a lack of effort after the game — and maybe he should have — but there was still little question at whom his displeasure over Orlando’s horrid rebounding performance was mostly directed.

“They were playing small, and we got crushed on the boards,” Van Gundy said. “That tells me that the effort wasn’t there. I just told them, I’ll take the blame offensively — we’ve got to have a better plan for what they were doing — but if you give up 16 offensive rebounds to a team that’s playing small, then that’s an effort problem.”

A careless showing out of the Magic surely did them in on Wednesday, but of larger concern, however, was Howard’s effort when he was no longer in the game.

With the Magic trailing 99-74 with just more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Howard and point guard Jameer Nelson could be seen joking and laughing at the end of the bench during a time out while Van Gundy brought the rest of the team in for what was surely a reaming.

Sure, Howard and Nelson had been out of the game for some time, and the discussion in the huddle was certainly not directed at them, individually. But what kind of example does their complete dismissal of the huddle set for the rest of the Magic bench? What does it say to the teammates when Howard and Nelson — the team’s two captains, no less — decide that it’s OK to mentally check out just because their team is down?

This is a group that has already been dragged around throughout Howard’s on-again, off-again trade demand saga, and whether he intends it or not, sitting off to the side and laughing during a time out in an embarrassing blowout loss projects the same message that Howard has from Day 1: I’m only here for you when things are going my way.

It’s troubling enough for a team’s franchise player to be a lackadaisical rebounder from time to time, but at least he can make up for that the next night, and turn it on and grab 20 boards — which he has done nine times this season. But there’s never any excuse for being an apathetic teammate, and that’s something Howard, in his eight years in the league, has yet to fully learn.

Unfortunately for the Magic, that unspoken message of indifference from Howard is nothing new, and it’s become something of a habit when he doesn’t feel he’s as active in the offense as he should be. Howard is not always what one might call the consummate team player, and the lingering effect of his frustration over a lack of touches often manifests itself in the form of a perfunctory effort somewhere else.

In two games at Madison Square Garden this season, Howard has combined for only 20 points (on 7-of-13 shooting) and 15 rebounds, while turning the ball over 12 times and committing 10 fouls.

Howard has had eight or fewer field-goal attempts on five occasions this season, and he has been held below his season average in rebounds in each of those games, as well. Only twice has Howard still hit his season rebounding average in a game when he scored fewer than 15 points.

But after the dust settles on these types of games, Howard, like his coach, usually chooses to spread the blame evenly rather than hold himself to a higher level of accountability.

"It’s the same thing I’ve been telling the guys: Our effort has to be consistent,” Howard said Wednesday. “If we want to win a championship, every guy has to buy in to playing the right way every night. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be sitting at home early."

If Orlando does, indeed, find itself sitting at home early, Howard could have a new set of teammates to throw under the bus sooner than the Magic would prefer. But if that happens, there will be no one to blame but Howard himself.

And if Howard is looking for evidence, he can point to games like Wednesday’s for all the proof he needs.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner