The Beginning of the Dwight Howard End? Or, Just the End

Dwight Howard is following Carmelo Anthony and Monta Ellis into obscurity. Before you can ask is he a Hall of Famer? he has disappeared. Five summers ago, Melo could look back on the season and be satisfied. In 2013-14, he played 77 games and averaged 27 ppg.  But last season (2018-19), he played 2 games. Currently he is on no one’s roster. Five summers ago, Monta Ellis celebrated a regular season milestone. In 2013-14 he played 82 games for the first time in his career. In 2018-19, he wasn’t in the NBA. Dwight Howard’s reality is eerily similar.

Five summers ago, Howard was drying his tears. His first year in the playoffs as a Rocket ended dramatically with a series ending game winner by Damian Lillard and Howard went home in the first round. Nevertheless, he had his Rockets future to look forward to. But in a twist of fate and Howard mismanagement, the years were not kind. He only suited up for 9 games in 2018-19 and he is on no one’s roster right now.

The Lakers who needed help at center, preferred JaVale McGee. Is this Howard at the end? Dwight Howard, the 8-time All-Star and 5-time rebounding champ? Is the NBA through with the 33 year old?

He made news recently but it was gossipy and had nothing to do with his basketball life but what Howard has been reduced to: an anecdote off the court. Is he gay? Is he not gay? Howard has to continually defend himself because a lawsuit outed him and he has spent a lot of time fighting back against the impression that he is a homosexual who has been undercover, that he is perpetrating. While his sexual identity may be salacious for some, and even for others may complete an identity, it has nothing to do with basketball.

What does have to do with basketball but something way in the past is that time when Kobe Bryant called him soft. Howard in his thirties (so there is some self reflection going on) realizes that Kobe meant he was mentally soft. Howard, back then, wasn’t feeling the Mamba mentality. He didn’t understand subtlety and nuance and that Bryant wasn’t calling his physical game soft. Howard was always battling inside for rebounds, and in his prime, blocking shots. What Bryant measured all players by was their mental toughness and their ability to will themselves into success and achievement. Can they achieve under stress? Can they outthink their opponent? If no was the answer, then in Bryant’s calculation you were soft.

Howard says he understands where Bryant was coming from but the more curious thing is why bring all this up now?

Because Howard himself is archaic, a dinosaur, he doesn’t fit into the league and the only way he can get pub is for a gay rumor denial and to bring up Bryant’s name. It is a precipitous fall from 2009 when Howard received 3 million All-Star votes and was in the NBA Finals. A decade later, he has disappeared. And worse, no one cares.

In his first eight years, Howard had delectable numbers. Four years of 20 ppg. Four years of 2 blocks a game. Five years of 13+ rebounds. It was the best of him.

Not counting this year of nothing, the past five years he averaged 18, 15, 13, 13 and 16. He couldn’t crack 2 blocks a game and his rebounding never hit the 13 mark. The young Dwight Howard is over, a thing of the past, a trivia question: who was the number one pick in 2004 who went to the NBA Finals five years later with the same team that drafted him?

Multiple things happened to Howard’s career. Some he could control, others he couldn’t, but he wasn’t a victim.

Let’s start with his egocentric idea to take on a superstar’s nickname as his own. Whenever he was compared to Superman Shaq, and could never meet those comparisons or expectations, he became moody and sullen. It was a self inflicted wound.

Bad decision number two: he bad mouthed Stan Van Gundy to the Orlando front office, trying to exert the power he didn’t have to get Van Gundy fired. It failed precipitously, so much so, he had to bomb a Van Gundy presser and pretend everything was A-ok when he was scheming behind the scenes.

Bad decision number three: he opted-in his contract which was a fail of a business decision. It delivered him less money, not more. But the reason he opted-in was puerile. He didn’t want the fans mad at him. He needed their approval. While he was viciously slaughtered for his inability to make a financial decision like adults do, he quietly reminded the NBA who he really was. Insecure. Needy. Pliant.

That summer, he asked to be traded, wanting Los Angeles and the Hollywood lifestyle. That was bad decision number 4. While the Lakers do play in proximity to Hollywood, the Lakers aren’t about the starry life but the exceptional. Instantly he was asked to be a credit and not a debit while the big men legends loomed like a ghost: Shaq, Kareem, Wilt, Mikan. He couldn’t live up to the expectation nor live in a Kobe world who demanded insistence and self-will. Howard wasn’t wired to be dogged and he wasn’t mature enough to be submissive. It was a disaster.

Bad decision number 5. He signed with the Rockets and took all their max money when he could have signed for less with the Warriors who were very aggressive in trying to change his mind. The Warriors had just given Andre Iguodala max free agent money. To add Howard meant they could have thrown the to-do list in the trash. But Howard wanted the money and not the titles. He lost out on three championships. Andrew Bogut and Javale McGee took his spot on a championship team.

Only because Howard was so talented could he attempt to outrun himself and fail up. Exhausted, he had no cover. The game just changed. There wasn’t a need for a traditional back to the basket center whose only skill was a 5-footer hook, rebounds, and blocked shots, a player who thought he was a superstar when he was just a really good player, a pouter who made unhappiness his personal art form.

After Houston there was Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington. In Atlanta, he was annoyed because he didn’t get playing time in the fourth quarter of playoff games. The Wizards went small and Howard was a liability. Then in Charlotte, the players cheered when he was traded. In Washington he was invisible until the gay rumors and then he was a meme and the punchline to a joke. And so here we are.

It is Howard’s 16th season, if he plays. Right now that is iffy, at best. He has his prime to reflect on. Is it enough for the Hall of Fame? No doubt.

3 Defensive Player of the Year awards. 1st team All-NBA, five times. 1st team All-Defensive,  four times. Top (5) MVP voting, four times. 12th All-time in Offensive Rebounding. 7th All-time in Defensive Rebounding. 14th All-Time in Total Rebounding. He led the league in rebounding five out of six years (2007-13). 4th All-time in Field Goal Percentage.

His past glory though isn’t enough of a box to frame the career in because Dwight Howard wasted a part of his NBA life. He was a big man who was mentally small. He cheated himself by over-evaluating his ability and not adapting to the new definition of big man and his thirst for approval set him back. He couldn’t reinvent himself and so here he is: a wandering figure with a lopsided smile hoping someone needs a backup center who, at best, is an average big man.