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Everybody hates Dwight: Defending Houston's star big man

Dwight Howard in his days with the Orlando Magic. The big man just doesn't seem to care too much about basketball and looks to be leaving the Houston Rockets.
Expert
21st February, 2016
25

Call it ‘The Curse of Drake’. When Toronto’s marquee rapper and Raptor ambassador bragged on his 2013 track Tuscan Leather that he “reached heights that Dwight Howard couldn’t reach” it meant something.

Nothing was the same for Howard after 2013. His decline had already begun by that stage, coming off a damaging season of underperformance in Los Angeles where his undying desire to chill burned in the flames of Kobe Bryant. But Howard was still a star, a no-brainer max contract player who earned third team All-NBA honours in 2012-13 after five consecutive first team nods. There were still few that could scale his heights. In 2016 though, the rest of the league is looking down on Howard.

For the NBA community Howard’s decline has been as steep as it’s been enjoyable. Nobody likes Dwight Howard. He’s a diva, the architect of the ‘Dwightmare’ – a recurring Florida melodrama where his indecision over leaving the Magic became as confusing as it was nauseating. He tried to get Stan Van Gundy, one of the league’s best coaches, fired because he didn’t like him anymore. He abandoned Orlando, screwed Brooklyn, jumped ship in L.A. and hasn’t delivered in Houston. And worst of all, he’s done it all with a smile on his face.

People don’t like Howard because of the perception that he just doesn’t care that much about basketball. Like Shaquille O’Neal but so much worse, basketball is not Dwight Howard’s life – it’s only a part of it. Former coach Kevin McHale recently added fuel to the anti-Dwight fire, saying that five minutes after Howard loses he’s over it. He’s the antithesis of Kobe, which is why that relationship was destined to be a catastrophe from the beginning.

We want our athletes to be pathologically focused on winning. We want them to be maniacal, to be driven and all-consumed. They have physical gifts that we don’t, so we feel that they’re obliged to make the absolute most of them. If they don’t, if they’re not hell-bent on extracting every ounce of their God-given talent, we’re not just disappointed; we’re insulted.

As his bizarre, uncomfortable farewell tour continues, it’s clear that Kobe Bryant is one of the most adored figures in NBA history. We love him for all of the reasons above. We love him for being unhealthy – a fundamentally doomed character who always feels slighted, and as a result always has to compensate. He seems perpetually unhappy, which is why he’s so sympathetic.

Dwight Howard seems to exercise a healthy work-life balance, which is the least sympathetic thing on Earth. When Howard bailed on Los Angeles and Kobe it was seen as him shirking responsibility, he would rather play second fiddle to James Harden in Houston than serve as Bryant’s apprentice before taking on the mantle of being the next great Laker. In Howard’s defence, there is no universe where I would take dealing with Kobe Bryant’s crap over partying with James Harden.

The public distaste for Dwight, for the posturing, the joking around and that damn smile, has created so much noise around him that the truth has become almost impossible to hear: Dwight Howard has been the best NBA centre of the past decade and it’s not even close.

In sports we love narratives and one of the most beloved is the ‘leader narrative.’ Every champion needs a leader. It can be a fiery leader like Bryant or Kevin Garnett, a statesmanlike leader in the vein of Tim Duncan and Chauncey Billups, or a selfless lead by example figure in the mould of Steph Curry. It doesn’t matter – they just have to be a ‘leader.’

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Dwight Howard has never fit any of the leader archetypes. There’s nothing inspirational about him, he undermines those around him and he just doesn’t seem to care. We revel in his failure because it confirms what we want to believe.

But Dwight Howard didn’t fail. Any criticism of Howard as a basketball player, as an individual talent who could lead a team to a championship is immediately undermined by 2009. Howard took an Orlando team to the Finals whose five best players after him were Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus (Jameer Nelson was also on that team but injured throughout the playoffs). In the Conference Finals that year Howard came up against LeBron James in the best series LeBron ever played and emerged victorious, putting up a 40-14-4 in the clinching game six.

The Magic lost the Finals in five to the Lakers but they were a Courtney Lee fingertip in Game 2 and an epic collapse in the final minute of game four away from leading that series 3-1. The following year their team was even better, beginning the playoffs on a historic tear, reeling off eight straight wins before one of the more inexplicable playoff defeats in recent NBA memory to the underdog Celtics in the Conference Finals where Vince Carter became Vince Carter at the worst possible time, choking on two free throws to cost Orlando game two.

Howard should have been the MVP of the 2010-11 season but finished second to Derrick Rose because Rose had the better narrative (in reality, the award should have come down to Howard and James, but neither had a shot because of Howard’s personality and the public loathing for James in the immediate aftermath of The Decision. Narratives!).

Following Howard’s MVP snub the drama started and so did the injuries. Howard hasn’t been the same player since 2011 – he’s been a shadow of the transcendent athletic force he once was, the league’s pre-eminent defender who could be at the top of the key at one moment and then blocking a shot at the rim the next with a speed that was as cruel as it was breathtaking.

His defensive impact has been muted, with the Rockets this season a mere 0.5 points per 100 possessions stingier with Howard on the court. It’s a far cry from 2010-11, Howard’s best season, when he was the game’s best defensive player and his team was an incredible 6.8 points per 100 possessions better on defence with him on the floor – effectively the difference between this year’s Warriors defence and the Lakers.

Howard’s time in Houston seems to have run its course. He doesn’t have any chemistry with James Harden and it’s clear that the duo do not complement each other. Howard wants the ball in the post while Harden wants to iso and pick and roll. Their failed chemistry has been destructive, dating back to the disastrous playoff series defeat to Portland two years ago, where the team devolved into watching Howard prosper in the post while Harden stood and watched aimlessly. The two do not make each other better and in over 1100 minutes this season line-ups featuring Harden and Howard together are barely breaking even.

Howard has not expired as a useful NBA player. He’s still averaging a 15-12 with a 20 PER this season despite Houston’s troubles. He’s not a transformative talent anymore but he could still be the second best player on a championship team.
He’s been a beast in the playoffs the past two years, butchering Robin Lopez and Robin Lopez’s sense of being a man in 2014 with perhaps the last great ‘old school big man in the post’ playoff performance, putting up a 26-13 with 2.8 blocks on the Blazers.

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He was integral to last season’s deep playoff run too, averaging a 16-14 and 2.3 blocks with Houston a monstrous 9.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (an even greater positive differential than Harden). And don’t forget, in that epic game six comeback against the Clippers, it was Howard putting up a 20-21 in 40 minutes while Harden shot 5 for 20 in 30 minutes and spent the fourth quarter on the bench.

Given the trade rumours over the past month and their walking catastrophe of a season to date (http://www.theroar.com.au/2015/11/05/failure-launch-rockets-early-season-woes/), it seems unlikely that Houston will retain Howard as a free agent. The Rockets might need to blow things up. What was once a loaded roster is now just deep in mediocrity.

Ty Lawson has been a debacle, Terrence Jones is an immense disappointment, Corey Brewer’s contract is nearly as bad as his play, Donatas Motiejunas is gone, and Patrick Beverley is an injury report that writes itself.

Letting Howard go would be a giant step forward in a rebuild. Clint Capela is a genuine talent and his rim running ‘I don’t care about getting post touches because I can’t do anything in the post’ Tyson Chandler archetype is a much better fit next to Harden than Howard.

Daryl Morey is too smart to give Howard, a declining big man with a history of chronic back and knee injuries, the max deal that he covets. There are enough stupid teams in the league (you think Sacramento aren’t dumb enough to talk themselves into a Howard/DeMarcus Cousins twin towers arrangement? You underestimate Vlade Divac) to throw something close to the max at Howard irrespective of his fit, and there are enough smart teams that might do it if he’s a perfect fit (see: the Boston Celtics).

But Howard is going to be overpaid and we’re a few inevitable years away from his deal being an albatross, the sequel to his former Magic teammates Rashard Lewis and Gilbert Arenas. The spectre of ‘Dwight Howard’s Expiring Contract’ just seems too perfect on paper for 2021 that it has to come to fruition.

Howard’s gargantuan contract to be will be another nail in his coffin of public perception. It will be another chapter in the best-selling story of Dwight Howard’s failings and inadequacies; more noise on the album of loud, gleeful Dwight mocking.

Howard isn’t blameless for all this. The soap opera in Orlando was a farce entirely of his own doing and his reluctance to run pick and roll – an affront to his weird Shaq-inspired complexes of needing to fulfil the 1995 big man in the post archetype – has undermined him at various stops.

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But most of the criticisms are just noise, vindictive noise, and no matter how irksome his personality has been and continues to be, it doesn’t obscure the simple truth about Howard, regardless of how painful it is to admit and accept: he is still really good and he was once meaningfully great.