Goodbye Dwight

Three seasons and change has led the Rockets here, to the end of a long road.  They are no longer trying to mask the obvious, pretending misery is beauty, pretending catastrophe is an accidental design, nor are they eager to cling to Dwight Howard who is a diminished figure in the sport, a disappearing man. No one is particularly happy about this sudden fall from grace thrust upon the Rockets, not Howard, not James Harden, not those in charge of building a championship contender. Out of the playoffs in April hardly makes sense when Dwight Howard is on the team. Except this isn’t that Dwight Howard.  This dude is a sleepwalking facsimile stumbling through the last half of his career while pretending it never happened, this grotesque failure. As promises go, it was broken a long time ago, before Howard entered the Houston scorched earth and it is why Dwight Howard is not going to be redeemed anytime soon.

Memory lane is a sorrowful thing but here goes. It wasn’t that long ago when Dwight Howard was the league’s best center. The mighty have fallen in a span of three years, and as is Howard’s way, he takes a heap of people with him as he crashes to earth, leaving damage that is irreversible. Idealism having left a long time ago, the Rockets were at their miserable worst all season long and the playoffs only regurgitated the theory that they are broken with Howard in the mix. He isn’t their only problem, they have a list of issues. But Howard is their largest focal point. Watching him walk out the door, at this point, is an act of benevolence for everyone involved.

Howard has a way of creating fatigue and then incentivizing scorn so the divorce part of the Howard-Rockets story makes everyone involved a little relieved.

This year is thankfully over. Dwight Howard’s impact has been mediocre on every level of team play. And that’s not even the worst part. He has the look of a man dying from a disease that has no cure. As has been a ten year gripe, Howard has been unhappy with his touches and watching him mope like a two year old at bedtime is a reminder that it always ends like this for Howard, a line in the sand he crosses over to reach somewhere else.

Howard completed the second worst year of his career. Not since he was a rookie has he been this average. It’s easy to forget that seven seasons ago Howard played in the NBA Finals. He hasn’t been close to returning.

Dwight Howard Points FG% Rebounds Blocks
2008-09, Orlando Magic 20.6 57.2% 13.8 2.9
2015-16, Houston Rockets 13.7 62.0% 11.8 1.6

If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior then by all means blame Daryl Morey. There were so many red flags the Rockets GM ignored in his starry crush to snag Dwight Howard out of Los Angeles. In his 2012-13 season with the Lakers, Howard underperformed most of the year. A lot of that was due to his physical situation and being in pain. Back surgery takes a long time to heal and it’s not very pretty to go through it day by day. That was understood. The rest of it was on Howard who was labeled next-generation until he could no longer live the lie.

Nurturing self-delusion, clinging to it as a companion, Howard and his talent deserved better, or so he believed. He just needs the ball and he can do great things, is the cliched Howard argument.  But his offense includes putbacks, dunks, lobs and a five foot jump hook but nothing sublime to impact the game at its most crucial point. Anything away from the basket and he is pretty hopeless. Through no fault of his own, in the middle of his career, the center object transitioned from in the paint to everywhere else.

With the Lakers, Howard got into a Kobe feud and everyone who has been in one of those protracted fights always ends up the loser and on another team. It was even worse than that for Dwight. In a reversal of fortune, Howard was blamed and it stuck to him, causing other players to see him as an enemy. Shaq left Kobe as a hero. Dwight left Kobe as a thief.

One of Howard’s flaws, how he is wired in the brain, is not delivering the truth straight. Howard has a way of sticking to a script of talking points that no one believes but he says it anyway and the problem with that is the one time you are confessing, everyone has stopped listening.

Howard’s last moment in L.A., he was walking off the court, having received a second technical foul in an elimination playoff game against the Spurs, proving that Howard’s emotions were never under control. As he was leaving the floor, coming towards him, Kobe Bryant, limping on a broken Achilles, passing Howard and then taking Howard’s place on the bench as if to remind everyone he was everything Howard was not. Kobe was in the trenches. Kobe dug through dirt in the battle. Kobe didn’t let his men down. The metaphor was powerful and it stuck to Howard, his failure, not just to be great, but to know how to lead.

It should have caused the Rockets to back up a little bit. Here was someone who wanted something he had not yet earned. He wanted power but he didn’t want to put in the sweat equity to get it. Furthermore, how did Daryl Morey think Howard’s relationship with Harden was going to shape out?

Harden grew up in the native land of Kobe Bryant’s prime. He imitated Bryant’s usage rate, his ball dominance, his scoring acumen. Had Howard ever seen Harden play? Did he think Harden was just going to change on a dime because a no free-throw shooting Howard arrived as the savior of the Rockets? Did the Rockets just gloss over Howard’s very clear record of either getting on the bad side of coaches or possessing the maturity of a 17 year old?

The paradox of Howard’s rise and fall is that his talent never made him one of the special, beautiful ones. There are hero cultures but not in basketball, not if you don’t commit to winning, not if you can’t carry a team to playoff nirvana, not when you lose in the post-season year after year after year. Organized basketball is an achievement culture with little use for the vulnerable and weak who can’t get their act together and who can’t let go of their ego.

NBA Centers, 2015-16 Real Plus-Minus Rank Defensive Real Plus-Minus Rank PER
DeMarcus Cousins 2nd 10th 23.67
DeAndre Jordan 4th 4th 20.66
Dwight Howard 37th 38th 18.99

He has traveled far and not very far in the three seasons since he chose Houston. He is back to where he was at the very beginning when he pushed his way out of Orlando and fled, on foot nearly, all the way to Texas, with a Los Angeles interlude as a buffer.

Once upon a time, Dwight Howard wanted Brooklyn. Deron Williams and Chris Paul were a part of the Howard plan. 2011 was a long time ago.

Howard settled for Houston. His inaugural year, he lost in the first round of the playoffs on a Damian Lillard spectacular 3-pointer buzzer beater that was the type of shot that ruins your summer.  It was painful for Howard to stand there in the Rip City ecstasy, to look around him at players jumping up and down and know he was repeating the same sad Dwight Howard story. Last year, he made it to the Western Conference Finals, putting up numbers of 14.4 points and 14.4 rebounds, but there was that lingering issue with James Harden.

This year, his end had a sad twinge of irony, losing in Oakland. Oakland had courted him, making a last ditch effort to bring him onto a team with Steph  Curry, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson. Howard, though, took the money. He trusted James Harden.

Therein lies the miscalculation. If Harden is your best player you’re not going to make it past the third round of the playoffs.  With Howard as your best player, you won’t make it past the first round. There isn’t a move left for Daryl Morey to make other than to say he failed. He failed. He didn’t know Howard like the Lakers knew Howard, like the Magic knew Howard, like Stan Van Gundy knew Howard, like Mike D’Antoni knew Howard. The chickens do come home to roost.

One more Howard melodrama after his Houston team drifts in the wind is on the agenda as Howard navigates the back end of being 30 and being in the NBA and losing a lot of his athleticism. It will be Howard’s 4th team come summer and you can expect him to hunt for the largest paycheck he can negotiate, though his reality will be a tough pill to swallow when what’s in his hands is not how he sees himself.

He is not who he used to be, nor is he who he wants to be. The reflection does not match the man in the mirror. That is the devastating truth about Dwight Howard and his love of an illusion. Coupled with the economics of the day, the future of Dwight Howard, the man who wanted to be Superman but crashed to earth, is uncertain. It’s time to move on and forget Houston happened. It’s easy. He’s done it twice before.

 

photo via llananba