There was another time in Rockets history when free throws were a hot topic of conversation.
Before analytics broke down every inhale and exhale, before Twitter delivered a world of helpful experts and second-guessers, Rick Barry, Calvin Murphy and Mike Newlin didn’t need assistance at the foul line.
In fact, in the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons, every time a referee signaled a technical foul on the other team, there was a race to grab the ball and a scrum ensued as the threesome jockeyed among themselves.
“I’m elbowing Rick and Mike is elbowing me and all of us are competing like hell with each other to take the shot,” Murphy said. “Hey, we were teammates and there were no problems in the locker room or after the game. But we all wanted to be the guy at the line because we all felt we were the best one to take and make the shot for the team and we were all comfortable.”
Compare that now to Dwight Howard, the first-year Rocket who trudges to the foul line these days like a guy who’s hoping for reprieve from the governor.
Barry (.8998) ranks third on the NBA all-time career free throw percentage list, Murphy (.8916) is seventh and Newlin (.8695) is 23rd.
Howard couldn’t see those numbers with a telescope. After going 5-for-9 from the line in a 123-117 overtime loss on Wednesday night, Howard is 46-for-96 on the season, a career low .497. The Rockets have lost three of their last four games with Howard connecting at just a .396 (19 of 38) free-throw clip.
“That’s unfortunate,” said the Hall of Famer Murphy, now a TV analyst in Houston. “First off, I’ve always been a big fan of Howard. I love his enthusiasm, his athleticism and his aggressiveness on the court. He’s a helluva player and the truth is we should be talking about how he’s out there busting his ass every night, gobbling up rebounds, anchoring the defense. There are a lot of nights when he’s a shot-blocking machine.
“But now this one negative aspect to his game is becoming the symbol of who he is. The truth is nobody will ever talk about how good you are if you’re gonna stand up there and go 5-for-16 at the foul line. He has to erase that.”
The 5-for-16 came a week ago when coach Mike D’Antoni had the Lakers repeatedly foul Howard intentionally in the fourth quarter. The Hack-a-Howard stopped the Rockets offense in its tracks and took the ball out of the hands of finisher James Harden as the big man missed seven free throws in the final quarter.
“There’s no reason for it,” Murphy said. “It frustrates me to sit there and watch it. Look, they say it’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks at this point 10 years into his career. But I’m telling you, it’s all about his mechanics and a good teacher could have the problem fixed in a month or so and by February or March nobody would be fouling him and sending him to the line.”
Murphy emphasized that he has a job and is not campaigning to help Howard. But he also noted that in 44 years of living in Houston, while also traveling the world on behalf of the NBA putting on shooting clinics, only two Rockets have ever asked for his help on free throws: Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and enforcer Larry Smith.
“One guy didn’t need my help and the other one was at the end of his career,” Murphy said. “Howard’s mechanics are only slightly off, but it makes a difference. I’m not saying everybody has to shoot exactly the same way. But Howard shoots from the waist up and most of the time he pushes the ball and it doesn’t come off his fingertips.
“I’ve heard people laugh when Dwight says he he needs to have the right song in his head at the line. But it’s no joke. Shooting is all about rhythm.”
It’s also about confidence and rising to meet the challenge. Howard works diligently on free throws after each practice and those who work with him say he buries most of them, even putting together long strings of makes.
“I don’t care about how many Dwight makes in practice when it doesn’t matter,” Murphy said. “If he had truly good mechanics, they wouldn’t break down in games. You look at Howard out there when it’s on the line and he’s got the expectation that he’s going to miss.
“The attitude you have to have is, ‘C’mon, foul me and I’ll go right up there and stick it in your eye.’ Instead, he blinks. Dwight and nobody else want to miss at the foul line, but your mind starts playing games. Eventually it affects everybody on the team.”
If the Rockets are to become the championship contender they believe they are, how can they navigate the playoffs with their go-to, $88-million big man sporting a critical, gaping liability in his game?
“Ask (coach) Kevin McHale,” Murphy said. “I’ll stay away from that one.”
What he knows is that more teams will foul Howard with a game on the line if he can’t step up and make free throws.
“I know I would,” Murphy said. “I don’t want to hear that stuff about changing rules. That’s all I hear these days in sports. They want to take tackling out of football. They tell defenders in the NBA that you can’t impede a guy’s progress. People want to say don’t let them foul a guy like Howard. I say make your damn free throws.
“I’ll tell you what. If I’m playing the Rockets in a playoff series, a championship game, I’m touching him from the time he walks out of the locker room. You get mad all you want at me. I don’t care. I’m here to win the game. You should be too.
“It’s on Howard to get mad enough to fix the problem.”