Things used to be so simple. It was only a few seasons ago that Dwight Howard was the toast of the league. He was the anchor of a contending team, Defensive Player of the Year (for three consecutive years, first time in league history that happened), a member of the Gold Medal winning "Redeem Team," and considered by everybody to be the best Center in the NBA and five best players overall. There was even a legitimate case for him to win the 2011 MVP over Derrick Rose. Unfortunately for Dwight, everything began to fall apart after the 2011 Playoffs.
Howard had a fantastic series against the Atlanta Hawks, He averaged 27 points and close to 16 rebounds as he overpowered Jason Collins and the collection of Atlanta big men on the inside. That was part of the strategy as the Hawks decided to let Howard run wild while containing the other Magic players. That summer, Howard gave a hint as to what his future held. He said:
"I'm stuck in a tough position because I feel like right now, where I'm at, I've done so much. And I just don't know what else I can do."
A series of mistakes
With that quote, Howard set off a frenzy that took him from being beloved in Orlando to where he is now. After that quote came the trade demands, drunk phone calls, and a never ending barrage of will he, won't he join the Nets that ultimately ended up with him staying put for the moment. Howard had some detractors, but he said he was loyal. He ended up making the All Star Game, but everything surrounding him was a bit surreal. Of course, the story doesn't end there and Dwight asked to be traded again and was finally sent on his way to Los Angeles in a four team trade. In the aftermath of the trade, everybody mocked and criticized the Magic for the way they handled the situation and what they got back for Howard. As it turns out, they won in the end.
The last time Los Angeles tried something this audacious was in 2003 when they signed Karl Malone and Gary Payton to team up with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. That version of the superteam dealt with a myriad of issues and conflicts but managed to reach the Finals before imploding. Was this group able to do the same? Nope. A rash of injuries, organizational turmoil, and dramatic under performance derailed what everyone thought would be a dream season. Eager to make an impression and shake off the ugly ending in Orlando, Dwight probably would have been better off taking his time recovering from the back injury he suffered in April. Along the way, Dwight was on the receiving end of constant criticism from Kobe and other figures around the Association. It made an already tough situation even more difficult to manage for Howard and the Lakers. With an aging roster and a nuisance that wasn't going to be leaving anytime soon (Bryant), Dwight made the decision to join the Houston Rockets.
Dwight's off-court luck didn't turn around once he got to Houston. After a rough off-season that saw his team strike out on every big name free agent, Chandler Parsons ended up leaving Houston and joining in state rival Dallas. When he got asked about it, Dwight said the loss didn't affect the team at all and that the responsibility for the Rockets' success or failure lied on his and James Harden's shoulders. He's not wrong per se, but like many situations, YOU don't need to be the one to say it out loud. What Dwight said isn't particularly problematic, but because people are tired of him, he got lumped in with the criticisms that went Harden and Daryl Morey's way. Morey in particular has had a rough summer as the narrative around him has shifted from innovative, new age General Manager to the smartest guy in the room.
And to bring it all home, Dwight unknowingly stepped in it on Twitter. Dwight did about as well as you would when commenting on a complex matter you knew nothing about and ended up apologizing while promising to never, ever, EVER, talk about international politics again. His foray into geopolitical Twitter did earn him a little bit of respect in some circles. Former NBA player (and funnily enough, someone who had to guard Howard during the 2011 Playoffs) Etan Thomas had some praise for Dwight, saying:
"I see the fact that he tweeted anything at all as a step in the right direction. At least he did something and provoked conversation. That’s more than a lot of people are doing. Whether they deleted their texts or not respect to Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace for showing a social conscious."
Away from the trouble?
With all of the knocks he took off the court, were things stable for Dwight on the court? Well, kinda. Since the start of the 2011-2012 season, Dwight has averaged about 19 points and 13 rebounds in 35.8 minutes per game. For every other big man in the league, that would be terrific. However, Dwight had been far and away the best at his position since 2007 so he's held to a much higher standard than his peers.
Something we have to keep in mind with Dwight is the change in coaches from year to year. When you've been playing for one coach for most of your career and you have to adjust your game on the fly in a high pressure environment, it's a shock to the system. Under D'Antoni and the Lakers, there were championship expectations and a small adjustment period. Dwight had to cover for a lot of LA's defensive deficiencies and play as the second option on offense for the first time since his sophomore season in the league. Dwight was never comfortable with Bryant and by the time he got the reins of the offense, it didn't matter. If there's one area by the numbers where we can see where the back (and shoulder) injury affected Dwight, it was in his free throw shooting. He was never a particularly great shooter from the foul line, but Dwight shot 49.2 percent from the charity stripe, one year removed from shooting 49.1 percent at the line in Orlando. For what it's worth, his defense did begin to improve as the season progressed in Los Angeles.
Dwight had a bit of bounce back season, but that didn't stop the avalanche of criticism. During the playoff series against Portland, he looked the best he has since 2011. Dwight averaged 26 points and close to 14 rebounds in 38.5 minutes a night. Unfortunately for him, LaMarcus Aldrdge outplayed him and the Blazers put the Rockets out in six games. Throughout the series, Howard was Houston's best player but didn't receive much help from the rest of the Rockets, namely James Harden. Despite Harden's follies, the brunt of the heat fell on Howard.
When you put everything together, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that well...
If there's a bright spot for Howard, it's that he's closer to 100 percent health than he has been in recent years. Although the back acts wonky on certain days, all signs point to Howard being able to handle the 82 game regular season grind and playoff run. We sometimes forget that Dwight has been dealing with injuries and their aftereffects while adjusting to new cities, rosters, head coaches and roles.
Howard is still despised by fans in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Orlando, and everywhere else in the league, but he does have someone who believes in him. Hall of Fame center and occasional trainer to the stars Hakeem Olajuwon thinks Dwight can return to his MVP caliber form. Dream says:
"I could see last year when I worked with him in camp that there were some things that he could not do. Or they were things that he did not think he could do. The difference now is that he is fit and those doubts are gone. This is the player who can go back to being the best center in the league and the kind of player that can lead his team to a championship. I think he should be dominant at both ends of the floor."
Dream might be on to something there. With a second year in Houston, Dwight should be more comfortable now that he's in better health and has a firmer grasp of things. There's a lot to be said for working in a stable environment where you won't be looking over your shoulder wondering if you're going to be moving to a new location. It's only preseason, but he has looked terrific in Houston's games thus far. The schedule opens up with the Lakers on Tuesday night and he figures to have a feast inside against Carlos Boozer and friends. He'll be the anchor of what I think will be one of the most intriguing teams in the league this season. Whatever their faults, Harden and Howard are two of the best at their positions in the league, and with Kevin Durant out the way for the time being, things should open up some in the standings for Houston. If Howard can return to form and the Rockets role players adequately cover for Harden on defense, they can make a deep playoff run.
Three years ago, Dwight Howard was a solid contender for "Best Player in the League not named LeBron James." He was the league's best big man and someone you would gladly build your team around. Fast forward to 2014 and he's seen as a joker who has fallen off. A lot of this is his own fault, but Howard has a tremendous opportunity to salvage his reputation and