It has been ten months since that April night when he ended his Lakers career. It has been ten months since he was unable or unwilling to lead from the front. Or even the middle. It has been ten months since he taught the world a lesson: all are not superstars, you cannot beg your way into this holy group. And so it was. Dwight Howard could not step into the Kobe void and create his own legacy when it counted most. He could not carry the team upon his shoulders and deliver one playoff win even as he was supposed to be great. Like any spectacular car crash something was ruined. It was Dwight Howard, the fallen prince, the one dimensional athlete, the rebounder extraordinaire. In that one moment of humility on the Staples Center floor, and then off, he was the person Shaquille O’Neal always said he was. He was dependent on the offense and brilliance of others. He was never accountable for his behavior. He resisted change. He was stubborn. And often he succumbed to the pressure of playing in a town that micro analyzes everything. In spite of his self adoration- he boasted about his brand of leadership- Dwight was ejected by the refs with nine minutes left to go in the third quarter of an elimination game. He hurt the Lakers then but he did the Lakers a favor months a few months later when he rejected their multi year offer.
We remember the last thing we see, not everything before it. A picture is worth a thousand words. For Dwight the picture was of his back. It was turned and he was walking away which of course was a metaphor for what he did three months later. A good amount of time has gone by since his jet ride back to inform Mitch Kupchak of his decision. In the aftermath the Lakers are one of the worst teams in the NBA. Yet hardly anyone starts a sentence this way: if Dwight Howard were here… No one mentions his name when they are cataloging the Lakers faults. The Dwight Howard year is hardly discussed. It is as if he never existed. Sure the Lakers are porous in the middle without someone controlling the paint. Of course, if Dwight Howard were the Lakers starting center he would strengthen the inside. But if Dwight Howard were here he would not really be here because when he was a member of the Lakers he played as if he was being punished. He hated the critique, the comparisons, the history, the obligation, the revolving light that enshrined Kobe and not Dwight. He never understood when you play for the Lakers you have to earn your fame, you just cannot be the funniest guy in the room. Or a good guy, a decent human being. No one cares about that. So many great players had come before Dwight and conquered. So many great players had come before Dwight and excelled. So many great players had come before Dwight and appreciated. But Dwight Howard, this man without a country, played as if he was being forced to walk on glass; he did not want to be here. He knew it and we knew it and still he fabricated this narrative that he was going to make it up to the fans. But the thing is there is no substitute for authenticity. Fans can spot a fraud; they just can.
He is playing his best stretch of basketball this season. In the last eight games Dwight Howard has had 21 points, 26 points, 34 points, 27 points, 18 points and 24 points. He has had twelve or more rebounds in six of the eight games. Not surprisingly the Rockets have won seven games in a row. They are the hottest team in the NBA right now. They are third in the Western Conference as far as playoff seedings are concerned. This is what Dwight Howard said he wanted when he claimed his best chance to win was with the Rockets. But is that really true? Or is this just one more instance of Dwight Howard saying what he thinks he should say. He couldn’t go with: I can’t deal with the pressure of L.A. I hate Kobe. I hate D’antoni. I hate former Lakers players critiquing me. It is not fun playing In L.A. because all they want to do is win.
The Rockets were Dwight Howard’s best chance to be happy. But in this league there is a correlation between being great and winning titles. No one cares about happiness and no one believes the Rockets are title contenders. The Thunder are the cream of the Western Conference and now that Russ Westbrook is back they are poised to win 60+ games. The Spurs are expected to do what they always do, be a force come playoff time. The Clippers with the maturing Blake Griffin, a healed Chris Paul and Doc Rivers would not surprise anyone if they made it to the Western Conference Finals. Even the Grizzlies with the way they play defense and the inside play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are the dark horse. The Rockets are overlooked or dismissed and for good reason.
As a team the Rockets are volume three point shooters but not highly accurate ones. The only teams that turn the ball over more than the Rockets are Golden State and Philadelphia. Their best player, James Harden, dominates the ball at the peril of his own teammates, especially Dwight Howard, who, late in games you cannot trust to make a free throw, or make a shot in the post that is not a dunk. Plus, he plays defense with his hands, not his feet and turns the ball over. At best, the Rockets are the fifth best team in the conference and if you include the Warriors they are the sixth best team. To their advantage they are young and can grow over time but the Warriors are young. The Thunder are young. Blake Griffin is young. The Rockets are seemingly stuck in this window of being a “B” student, a good team with flaws but not a great team. Teams like the Rockets make the playoffs year in and year out but they never win the big prize.
Which is what Dwight Howard said he wanted. But before he wanted to win he wanted to be beloved. He wanted fans to like him. They did. In 2009 Dwight Howard won the slam dunk contest. He received three million fan votes for the All Star game. No player in NBA history, not Magic, not Jordan, not Bird, not Shaq, every received that many fan votes. He was in the NBA Finals, having bested Lebron James to get there. And then came game four against the Lakers and all Dwight Howard had to do was make one free throw and the game would be over, the series would be tied. But it reared its grotesque head, the Dwight Howard thing. Pressure, expectations, choking. It was Dwight Howard versus Dwight Howard, Dwight Howard versus his own fragility standing at the free throw line with his team up 87-84. His weakness, his first brick of a free throw and his second brick of a free throw, was the Lakers gain. They tied the game with a Derek Fisher three. In overtime Dwight missed every shot he took and the Lakers won the game and the series. Seemingly the ascending career of Dwight Howard would never recover, nor would his likability.
Forbes just recently released the top 5 NBA endorsers for the year 2013: Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Dwayne Wade. Lebron received 42 million dollars in endorsements, Kobe 34 million dollars. Dwight received 6 million dollars. Of the most viewed games on television this year, Lebron played in three of them, Kobe in two of them, Durant in two of them. The Heat, Thunder and Lakers are the top three teams in road attendance in the NBA this season. The Rockets average the same amount of fans on the road as the New Orleans Pelicans.
All it means is that so much can happen to a person in a span of 5 years. You are in charge of your career so be careful. Dwight was once one of the most popular players in the NBA. This year he could not get enough fan votes to start in the All-Star game. Of course, he blames it on the ballot itself, on the absence of the center position but we all know All-Star fan selection votes are a litmus test on popularity. Kobe doesn’t play all year and he is voted in. Dwight plays all year and he is not voted in. Do the math.
More Dwight Howard double speak. At the All-Star game, in his press interview, Dwight said he has to think of himself as the best player in the NBA, better than Lebron or Durant. Of course that drew skepticism. If not laughter. Dwight copied Shaq’s nickname then played in Orlando then went to Los Angeles. Dwight said he wanted to be a star and then ran when the pressure was overwhelming. None of that correlates with the best player, with dominating the league. And then two days after Dwight’s All- Star media session and the best player comment, having the spotlight to himself, Kobe Bryant said, “I am a difficult person to deal with for people who don’t have the same kind of competiveness and commitment to winning.” He was being abstract, talking about no one in particular. Or maybe not. Maybe he was talking about someone in particular. Maybe he was talking about Dwight Howard, the manufactured superstar, the legend in his own mind, the player who came to Los Angeles and failed.