Dwight Howard is in the part of his career where people are debating whether he is a Hall of Famer. Howard’s last few years have been mediocre. Last week, Dennis Schroder said Howard only plays hard a handful of times when he is going up against former teams: Magic, Lakers, Rockets, Hawks. But then Wednesday night Howard did something that is almost never done anymore, particularly without skilled big men trolling the lane. He had a 30-30 game against the Nets. 32 points, 30 rebounds. Note: His last rebound came when DeMarre Carroll of the Nets missed a free throw on the final shot of the game. But still.
32 points. 30 rebounds.
The last person to do it was Kevin Love in 2010. Love was epic on a bad team, 31 points and 31 rebounds. Before that, it was Moses Malone, 38 points, 32 rebounds in 1982. But before we get all crazy with it, Wilt had 103 30-30 games. (Note to Mike D’Antoni: Google Wilt before you talk about best offensive player ever)
But back to Howard who is not going to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Howard has had a solid year in Charlotte. His 16 points is a three year high. His nearly 9 rebounds is a four year high. His defense is not what it used to be but he is still posting a 20.0 PER. Howard’s shooting is what it always is. He’s made 29% of his jumpers and his ability to stretch the floor is zilch, 20% from the three point line. But he still grabs boards and finishes at the rim.
The Dwight Howard problem is his salary. It is hamstringing the Hornets. They are over the cap with the enormous salary Nicolas Batum is making coupled with Howards $24 million. The Hornets lack verstatility and particularly a second scorer in the backcourt. With Howard, they will continue to tread water.
But it wasn’t always this hit and miss with Howard, where we are waiting for that one game that reminds you of Wilt. Nine years ago when Howard executed his Superman leap at the Slam Dunk contest, he was at the top of the NBA world and beloved worldwide as a preternaturally youthful antidote to the Kobe Bryant and LeBron James work ethic seriousness. That year, more than three million fans voted for Howard to be a starter in the All-Star game. That year, he led his team to a victory over LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals and advanced to the NBA Finals.
But these days he is mostly ignored unless he does something sick like 30 points, 30 rebounds. It is as if he’s relegated to the past and a narrative of great once upon a time who is now an over indulged and egocentric emotional slacker that whines, makes excuses, hates shooting guards, and has an inflated sense of his own worth. When he goes to a team, he doesn’t make them better.
He hasn’t made the Hornets better.
It’s not just that Howard has disappointed on the court after the age of 30, even though that is very true. A lot of players are not what we think they should be over time. It’s that Howard, by nature of his body, is advertising exceptionalism and has delivered just okay. When he plays well, like he is doing now in Charlotte, he doesn’t get the credit because the team is not winning.
|3 Years Of Superman||Points||Rebounds||Blocks||PER||Real Plus-Minus Rank (Centers)|
Howard attributes the public eye-roll of his game to how he left Orlando. But. Players leave all the time and they are not excoriated for it. The Howard drop off came because of two events that have stuck to him for nearly a decade.
The first was him asking management to fire Stan Van Gundy. (He disputes this ever happened but Van Gundy went on camera and said it did). The second was Howard publicly stating he was going to opt-out of his contract and then backtracking. His swift reversal made him appear immature, indecisive, needy, fragile and weak. From that point on, Dwight Howard was viewed through a prism of scorn, something he is well aware of.
“I’m all about myself”, Howard said, when explaining fans perception of him. “I’m this diva. I’m stuck on being Dwight Howard, this famous basketball player, so a lot of people are saying we don’t like this guy. I hear that a lot. It really hurts me. My attitude towards the game is still the same. My drive is still there.”
That drive he has re-discovered playing in Charlotte. It is the first time he has played with a true point (Kemba Walker) who wants to feed him the ball. Kemba has never played with a big man like Howard, despite Howard not being who he used to be.
If you listen to Howard talk long enough, you’ll hear him say the world dominate over and over again but his definition of domination is being the strongest and most physical rebounder and around the rim player and not the true meaning of the word, having a commanding influence on the entire game, both offense and defense.
Howard’s sensitivity has always been a central part of the he ain’t that tight Dwight Howard narrative. He said he remembered when Charles Barkley said he would never be “good in the NBA”. The same for Magic Johnson, as far fetched as it is to believe Magic tried to ruin Howard’s dream.
“It’s not that I am a bad person and I want people to like me. I know people are not going to always like me. If you get to know me, I’m laid back and I like to have fun. I’m interested in winning.”
Howard is a fascinating figure, given his talent and early young resume because he has admitted to a lack of mental toughness which most men are loathe to do. He acknowledges he has checked out of games when something was happening on the court he couldn’t tolerate. “I have to be better”, he has casually tossed out there, almost like an inhale.
Does he agree with Charles Barkley when Barkley said, “you are on the back nine of your career”? As playful as Howard is, he will be 33 years old in December, which means his best years are behind him, not in front of him. What do we know? He lost in the Finals in 2009 and he lost in the Conference Finals in 2015. That’s how close he has come to winning anything of significance. The game has dramatically changed since Howard entered the league. Howard is now asked to defend shooters on the perimeter and to have the versatility that wasn’t required when he was a high school player coming into the league.
Conscious of the perception that Howard treats his professional life as an interlude between moments of having fun, he said “I have been doing this since I was three years old. I want to win. I don’t want to finish my career and not be up on that podium.” He said that after his last season in Houston ended in disaster. He also said, “I want to be better than I am now.”
He is rejuvenated, sort of. The 30-30 game is proof. The Howard scoring and rebounding is back. He is even blocking shots. Howard competes and he wants to win.
He does a bad job at putting himself in the position to win though. He always is on the wrong team at the wrong time.