Dwight Howard’s stock has been steadily declining for a decade, but it’s time we take a moment to appreciate how good he was before it all went so wrong.
In February of 2011, Dwight Howard was on his way to finishing second in the MVP race, one spot ahead of LeBron James. It was his fourth consecutive year in the top five. In Bill Simmons’ Trade Value column (don’t front; you used to love it too), Howard came in second behind LeBron, and no sensible NBA fan would have disagreed.
At the time, Dwight just turned 25 years old.
His career should have been cresting. Instead, he played his last game with Orlando a little over a year later, sitting out the last month of 2011-12 and all of the Magic’s first round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers. He’d be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers the following summer.
Since Simmons’ column dropped, James has solidified his place as one of the two best players in the history of the sport. You’d like to say Dwight Howard has become a punch line, but that joke stopped being funny years ago. I don’t know that anyone has ever entered the “sad clown” phase of a career before, but that’s where we’re at with Dwight.
It’s a fitting legacy. And we may yet have another chapter to add.
Howard has been in the news this week as a possible target of the Lakers, his home when it all began to unravel. Sure, things got pretty nutty in Orlando, never more so than when an aloof Howard slipped his arm around Stan Van Gundy after his coach had just confirmed that the center was trying to get him fired (he ended up succeeding).
Even so, Howard finished seventh in MVP voting that season, becoming the second player in NBA history to average 20 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks and a steal and a half per game. No one has done it since.
He was at the peak of his powers. And then it all went to hell.
No, this isn’t a piece about why it went to hell. That article’s already been written, not too long ago. And five years before that. And two years before that. And probably many times in between (I can only spend so much time on the Google). Explaining the hows and whys of “Dwight Howard: NBA Pariah” is as old a hat as there is.
So no, the latest round of jokes wasn’t a surprise. What struck me instead this week isn’t so much that everyone seems to have forgotten just how good this guy once was (although many do), but simply that no one seems to care one way or the other.
This is 2019 for crying out loud. There’s a stan for everyone and everything. In the marketplace of opinions, having one that’s unique is harder than ever, and also the easiest way to stand out. It’s why NBA bloggers everywhere (hi mom!) are constantly trying to be the first one to tout some young player or another as the next big thing, or say that we’ve under-appreciated some middling journeyman. Meanwhile, one of the legit all-time greats is about to enter what might be his final season…
And no one remotely gives a damn.
I mean, I get it…Howard has more than earned his lot in life. Unlike Carmelo Anthony, another all-timer whose career back nine has similarly gone off the rails, Howard isn’t even good for clicks. No one wants to read about Dwight anymore (did they ever?) There’s no fan base that still holds a soft spot for him. The general NBA public is divided into two camps: the six that endured him and the 24 that are thankful they didn’t have to.
Still, it’s a little nuts when you think about it. Six or seven years from now when Dwight gets inducted into the Hall of Fame, who’s going to make the trip to Springfield to tell their grandkids they were there the day the greatest center of his generation (we’re getting there) was enshrined into immortality? Hell, I’m not sure there are many fans who would go if you gave them free tickets and paid airfare.
Doesn’t that seem odd to anyone else? It does to me, especially when we’re talking about one of the 10 best players to come along this century.
Blasphemy? Maybe. But once you get past the obvious names (LeBron, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and in a year or two, Kawhi Leonard), Dwight has as good an argument as anyone drafted in the last two decades.
For starters, by any conceivable metric, he stands alongside Dennis Rodman and Moses Malone as the greatest rebounders of the last 40 years. Maybe Andre Drummond joins that convo at some point, but right now, Dwight stands alone among his peers. With more career boards than Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Rodman and every human being drafted since Tim Duncan, he has a pretty solid foundation to his resume.
He’s also arguably the best defensive center this century, winning three Defensive Player of the Year awards, making the All-Defensive Team five times – second only to Duncan and Kevin Garnett among big men since he was drafted – and accruing more blocks than any active player. Ben Wallace, a four-time DPOY, six-time All-Defense selection and the only man to enter the league since 2000 to have more blocks than Dwight, has a case, but ask yourself: Who would you have rather had at their peak?
And yeah, Howard could score once upon a time…and that was before his adamancy for post touches, one of many derailments to his public perception. Among tall humans who live predominantly around the rim, the only players drafted since 2000 with more points scored are Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph. Howard’s resume is head and shoulders above them all.
Oh, and he was the best player on a Finals team. Fewer guys than you think can make that claim.
But of course, none of this matters. He’s Dwight, after all. The Dwightmare. If you include his impending release from the Memphis Grizzlies and likely signing by the Los Angeles Lakers, that’ll make it eight times Howard has switched teams in a little more than six years, either through free agency, trade or outright release. No player in NBA history who soared so high for so long has had his prime go so horribly wrong.
Even so, the disrespect seems as outsized as Howard’s shoulders once did inside a jersey that looked like it belonged to an eighth grader.
Before we wrap up, consider a comparison as you write your angry tweet about Dwight’s bad Ace Ventura impression correctly overshadowing his numbers and accolades:
There’s another notable NBA player who had significant questions raised about his fitness as a leader on multiple occasions. Like Dwight, he finished top-five in MVP voting four times and made All-NBA First Team on five occasions. Like Dwight, he was the best player on a Finals team that came up short to the best player in the sport at that time. Like Dwight, he was known for his rebounding and scoring efficiency, and like Dwight, led the league in both. Like Dwight, he pouted his way off the team that drafted him just as he entered his prime.
Finally, like Dwight will be, Charles Barkley was a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.
Of course, Howard is nowhere near the player that Chuck was, who has a case for the most underrated superstar of all time. Barkley won that MVP award, and was helping teams win long past when Howard’s employers were wishing him gone.
Still, it’s funny how Sir Charles is one of the most beloved former players in any sport, and while being great has a lot to do with that, he got there mostly by being himself and not giving a damn what anyone thought. If you didn’t like him, well…sucks to be you.
Just not quite as much as it sucks to be Dwight Howard.
So in appreciation of the guy that no one else seems to want to appreciate, I tip my cap to thee, good sir. Here’s hoping you get the recognition you deserve.