Dwight Howard consummated his long dalliances with the Rockets late yesterday, giving Houston one of the stranger tripartites in the league. You have the hyped-beyond-his-abilities Jeremy Lin, and the former third option James Harden coming off a 26 ppg season — and now Howard, seven feet of shoulders and 240 pounds of baggage. Maybe Howard did somehow get a raw deal in Los Angeles, where the incumbent superstar has a history of clashing with former No. 1 pick centers who arrive via Orlando, and maybe he will prove those deep playoff runs with the Magic weren't a soft-Eastern Conference fluke. But when you consider the overall arc of Howard's career for the past, oh, four years or so, it has been one of a player moving into his middle age as a pro without developing into a different player than the one he was at 23, and getting frustrated when the league won't bend around him anymore. Los Angeles was the perfect place for a celebrity with Howard's ambitions as a pitchman and pop culture presence. That it didn't turn out well for Howard the athlete surely gave the rest of the league pause, especially after a four-game playoff run that saw the Lakers suffer the worst home playoff loss in team history and Howard ejected early in the Spurs' decisive win. With Kobe sidelined, Howard had a chance to put the rest of the Lakers on his back, whereupon they promptly slid off his Skittles cape.
To give him every benefit of the doubt, washing out of Los Angeles is actually a sign that Howard may in fact be a semi-decent human being. His shoulder was janked up this season; injured players often take more guff than they deserve, and he was sensitive to the abuse. He also knows how to fill a box score like few people can. Howard has led the league in total and/or defensive rebounds every season since '05-'06, he has the fifth-highest shooting percentage (.577) in league history, and his career rebound percentage trails only Dennis Rodman, a player who also like Howard often led the league in tedious off-court drama.
A less physically gifted but otherwise Bizarro World version of Howard, Rodman won five titles with the Pistons and Bulls by eating glass and embracing the role of scoundrel. He won ugly, literally, and did not go on to sell McDonald's hamburgers at children. It was Hakeem Olajuwon who wooed Howard to Texas, but Rodman should be his role model, because after two bad breakups in two years, Howard's family-safe persona is looking more like hollow schtick. If he can become the player we actually love to hate, maybe someone will actually feel something when the Hall of Fame eventually waves him in, shrugging.
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