The narrative around Dwight Howard, as codified most recently in a kind of silly but enjoyable Lee Jenkins Redempt-O-Matic profile that appeared on Sports Illustrated’s website yesterday, casts the 31-year-old center as something like a failure, a wayward basketball soul in need of hoops atonement and redemption. That narrative makes a kind of sense. It’s also largely bullshit.
It’s not hard to figure out where the narrative comes from, or why it rings true. By most accounts Howard, once one of the NBA’s most popular and marketable players, is not well-liked around the league; he has spent much of his career shuffling between a gratingly phony Kooky Fun Guy routine, smarmy piety, and a surly, passive-aggressive, self-pitying petulance that is both far more authentic seeming than either of the first two and no less off-putting. He didn’t get along with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando; he really didn’t get along with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles; he really, really didn’t get along with James Harden in Houston; he even bickered with Dennis Schröder in Atlanta. On top of that, the popular narrative of his career holds that the trends of the sport—toward spacing, switching, and positional versatility, and away from the kind of traditional paint-bound big-man game Howard most comfortably plays—have eroded his effectiveness. In both Houston and Atlanta, his coaches often resorted to keeping him off the court altogether in big moments, and not only because he remains a pretty terrible free-throw shooter. (He often visibly sulked when this happened; again, he’s not very likable.)
All of the above helps explain why Howard will begin the 2017-18 NBA season on his third team in as many years, his fourth since he forced his way out of Orlando in 2012, and why he’s talked and written about as a reclamation project entering his 14th professional season. As Jenkins’s profile has it, the Charlotte Hornets are basically just kicking the tires to see what, if anything, he has left. “Howard refuses to acknowledge that this season marks his last chance for a revival,” Jenkins writes, but the fact the subject of last chances even came up tells you what you need to know about the story being told here.
Personality matters, of course, and especially in a team sport where things like effort and communication and trust truly are important: Getting along with your coaches and teammates and not forcing them to choke back their own vomit at the sound of your voice is a thing you can be good or bad at. If you’re such an insufferable dickweed that your presence has a corrosive effect on your team, you’re not as good at basketball as another player who does not do that. So let’s all agree that, in terms of basketball player attribute ratings, Dwight Howard’s 23 (out of 100) in Being A Tolerable Human Being goes some distance toward canceling out his 95s in both offensive and defensive rebounding and his 92 in defensive awareness. Fine. Let’s also agree that his shitty free-throw shooting (let’s call it a 41) and complete lack of scoring range (I’m tired of this gimmick) hold him further back. Okay.
So, yes, Dwight Howard never has been quite as good an overall player as he could have been, because of that stuff. And, as the sport has changed in ways that modify the relative importance of his strengths and weaknesses, the effect has been magnified a bit, so that both his popularity and his on-court value declined during what are supposed to be a star player’s peak years. He is not really a star anymore, and probably won’t be one again, and 31 is a pretty young age for that to be true about someone once considered one of the finest players in the NBA.
However, it’s worth remembering that, to the extent this makes Dwight Howard a disappointment or a failure or a reclamation project, it’s only because the first eight years of his career set stratospheric points of comparison for what came after. A double-double player from the time he was drafted, Howard had a strong claim from his third pro season (2006-07) through his injury-shortened final year in Orlando (2011-12) to being not only the NBA’s best center but one of its very most spectacular and dominant players. By the time he turned 27 he’d led the league in rebounding four times; for two of those years (2009 and ’10) he led the league in both rebounding and shot blocking. He’d made six of what turned out to be eight straight All-Star games, and received a record 3.1 million votes for the 2009 game. He’d made five consecutive All-NBA first teams; he’d won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards; he’d made four straight All-Defense first teams. Despite scoring almost entirely off lobs, putback dunks, and dump-off passes under the rim, he’d become a steady source of 20 points per night. The otherwise pretty shitty Magic made the playoffs each of his last six years in Orlando. They knocked off LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009; in the sixth and final game of the series, Howard put up 40 points and 14 rebounds. He was built like David Robinson; he was as powerful as Shaquille O’Neal; he jumped like Shawn Kemp. He was a monster. He was 24.
By the time of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, a back injury had eroded the freakish extremes of Howard’s visible athleticism (he still averaged 20 points, 14.5 rebounds, and two blocks that season); an embarrassing and childish feud with Van Gundy eroded much of his public goodwill. Back surgery ended his campaign in April, as well as his time with the Magic. The following season he was with the Lakers. Injured the whole time, playing mostly below the rim, with a fucked-up back and shoulder and a glazed-over expression on his face, bearing the brunt of the Lakers’ and Kobe’s frustration at their failed go at assembling a superteam, he nevertheless put up averages of 17 and 12 in 76 games, claimed his fifth rebounding title, and made his seventh consecutive All-Star game. But by the end of the season, the narrative had begun to take hold, helped along by the world’s pretty much unanimous distaste for his personality: Dwight Howard wasn’t just in modest decline, due to injuries and changes in the game. He sucked, now. He was lost. He needed restoration. Two productive years in Houston, during which his interpersonal friction with Harden and his pouting about low-post touches overshadowed his play, did nothing to dissipate it.
The problem is, Howard is still, right now, today, a full five years after the flowering of the narrative, even with all the changes in how basketball is played, even with the new premium the game places on centers who can defend smaller players out on the perimeter and make long jumpshots, not merely a serviceable pro but an actively good one, flat-out terrific in at least one important area (rebounding), and comprehensively better and more useful than the starting centers on plenty of other teams. Last season, in what was considered mostly a lost campaign for him, he finished in the NBA’s top 40 among minutes-qualified players in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), PER (Player Efficiency Rating), and WS/48 (Win Shares per 48 Minutes); finished in the top five (higher, for reference, than 2016-17 All-Defense first-teamer and All-NBA second-teamer Rudy Gobert) in offensive and defensive rebounding percentages; and even with his atrocious free-throw shooting and nonexistent jumpshot, still posted the 14th-best True Shooting Percentage (.627) in the league.
But, he butted heads with Schröder once or twice, and coach Mike Budenholzer benched him for big chunks of Atlanta’s first-round playoff loss to the Washington Wizards; then, the Hawks traded him away for spare parts as they committed to what, for them, qualifies as rebuilding mode. And now here we are, with the narrative fully crystalized and Lee Jenkins writing about Howard like he’s a resident of the basketball sewer, peering up through the grates with a tear in his eye, praying for redemption. When, really, the only verifiable part of any of it is that Dwight Howard is just kind of an unlikable boob.
He is good. Dwight Howard is still good. Even if he does not experience the “revival” Jenkins’s piece poses him as being in desperate need of, even if he just repeats the level of play he reached in 2016-17, the Charlotte Hornets will have added a good, productive, starting-grade NBA center to their roster. He’s not remotely as good or as popular, at 31, as it once seemed plausible to expect 31-year-old Dwight Howard might be. But then again, a list of current NBA players who are as good or as popular as it once seemed plausible to expect 31-year-old Dwight Howard might be has, at most, three or four names on it, and at least two of them (LeBron James and Kevin Durant) are among the biggest stars in league history. More to the point, a list of all the centers in NBA history who’ve been as good and popular as it once seemed plausible to expect 31-year-old Dwight Howard might be likewise does not have more than a handful of names on it. It’s just, well, 31-year-old Dwight Howard isn’t one of them. Neither is friggin’ Marcin Gortat! But only one of those two is being written about like an exiled basketball flagellant, roaming the earth performing good deeds to restore his lost honor.
I can’t decide if it’s tragic, or funny, or both, that Dwight Howard’s lasting contribution to the NBA may be gauging just how much useful on-court production can be canceled out, in reputational terms, by a truly repulsive personality. A lot, turns out!