Dwight Howard has been a man without country for the past three seasons. He has been cheered for, tolerated, accepted but not beloved. He has not been heroic. He has not been courageous. How else to translate Howard at the free throw line and getting booed in front of his home crowd, even if the crowd was heavily infiltrated with Lakers fans intent on ruining Howard’s night. Now that it’s happened again, Howard on an insufferably mediocre team, perhaps a worse team than the Lakers team of 2012-13, there is a feeling of Dwight Howard stepping into karma. Where can he run to now?
His last and only year with the Lakers, Howard had an out. If things went sideways- which they did- he knew he could escape and forget it ever happened. He could put the entire Lakers experience into one of his mental roledexes that he’d never have to take out again. The only problem with that bit of narcissistic reasoning is that Dwight’s memory erasure total disenfranchises millions of Lakers die-hards that remember everything.
The Lakers fans that make up an intensely passionate tribe of followers and cynics and believers and worshippers have not forgotten the way 2013 came to a crashing halt. It has less to do with Howard rejecting them- even though that was a blow to the pride- and more to do with those etched memories of Howard’s face incessantly contorted with smiles as he pledged his allegiance to Lakers values and Lakers principles.
His repeating over and over again he wanted to stay when it was clear he was playing the crowd in order to have them on his side when he delivered the final blow, leaving the organization high and dry- which was his right- upped the ante. Here he was, this stranger with a much maligned offensive game and mental fragility who was taken in, who was sheltered, now he was asking the organization to amnesty the player responsible for five NBA titles?
The dramatics were stunning before the last run-in, the free agent meeting. On the record, there was the Kobe Bryant psychosis where he played 48 minutes a game after the All-Star break, eventually ripping his foot to shreds while Howard acted like a distant cousin because he could not be the star. When Bryant went down with the Achilles, Howard was supposed to take over, after all this is what he had longer for, dreamed of. This was going to be the Hollywood story- champion driven out by the demands of his will, taken over by a younger dominant leader.
It was what Bryant was all the times Shaq went down with an injury or when he fouled out of a game. There was Kobe, leading the charge, carrying the team on his back. So with a full grasp of history, Lakers fans considered the moment prophetic. No, Kobe Bryant would never pass the torch willingly. But broken, he’d have to accept it when Dwight Howard filled in and carried the Lakers in the playoffs, not to wins necessarily, but as a leader and a voice, fighting hard, competing, giving everything.
But this was his everything: four games. Four losses. A 12 point loss. An eleven point loss. A 31 point loss. And then that last game when Howard was ejected after receiving his second techinical foul, legitimizing a basic truth about his leadership. He was never going to be Shaq.
That moment in his career was surreal and unforgettable. As Howard was walking into the locker room, his season done, his Lakers biography in shreds, a hobbled, in-pain Kobe Bryant was limping to the bench as if to say, “I am here, I always have been, I always will be”. As if he knew Dwight the hero was gone. In his place was Dwight, the vagabond.
These are the things that can’t be erased.
To add insult to injury, when Howard went into excuse mode he said Houston gave him a better chance to win a title. It was one more Dwight Howard half-truth. Sign for the mid-level at OKC or the Heat; that would give him the best chance to win a title. Houston had James Harden, a ball dominant guard who liked to take the game into his own hands so Dwight was trading one willful scorer for another.
At the time, Howard said the Rockets were all young and all got along, they were all friends.
Howard needs friends until he doesn’t, like now. As was the case with the Lakers, Howard is being very strategic. Once again, he has an out. Will the Rockets trade him? Probably not. His contract is too prohibitive and it would only be a rental since he has made no secret about his opt-out plans. In that way, Howard has matured, no longer interested in pleasing a fan base. But to be clear, the Rockets fans are nowhere near as specific and driven as Lakers fans.
A baby born after the last Rockets title is 20 years old now. What is there to remember? A baby born after the last Lakers title is 5 years old now.
Dwight Howard was 30 years old last week. This season has been average or below. He has not performed to the level of his $22,359,364 contract. He has not had this low of a scoring output (12. 2 points) since his rookie year in 2004-05. His rebounding total is the fourth lowest of his career. His blocks total is the 4th lowest of his career. His PER is the lowest since his rookie year. More than likely, he blames James Harden. Howard has never been skilled at introspection.
At 30 years old, Dwight Howard won’t make the All-Star team. Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins are better players, having passed him by; they can score. It’s hard to reconcile this Dwight Howard with the one who received 3 million fan votes in the 2009 All-Star game. That year Howard went to the NBA Finals. He lost. To Kobe Bryant.
He lost to Kobe Bryant a second time too, when Kobe’s organizational power pushed back Howard’s thirst for stardom. The Lakers chose Kobe. The Rockets chose Dwight.
If he had stayed with the Lakers, Dwight would be the undisputed leader of the team post-Kobe Bryant. But he’d hate the retirement tour, all the focus on a player he loathed. Now he’s on the hunt for his last high moneyed deal, championship not required. And the Lakers, for their part, have transitioned too. All their hopes are foisted upon a 19 year old.
That is what the Lakers think about these days, D’Angelo Russell. Not Dwight Howard.
photo via llananba