How the NBA Forgot Dwight Howard

People who saw Dwight Howard dominate the NBA up close don’t need to remember how great he was.

They remember when he and LeBron James were the best players in the league. They remember what made Howard a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, an eight-time All-Star and an All-NBA First Team member five years in a row.

When they saw the NBA’s 75th Anniversary list of all-time greatest players, selected by a panel of media, players and coaches, they realized someone had been overlooked: Howard.

“It was kind of crazy,” said Otis Smith, the former general manager of Orlando Magic, who built teams around Howard.

Says Stan Van Gundy, who coached him in his prime: “Whatever the reason he got kicked out, there’s something more to basketball than that.”

In the decade since Howard dominated the league, he’s gone from the centerpiece of a Finals team to a disappointing star to a dodgy player. The NBA’s Top 75 list, which ended with 76 players due to a tie, was just one example of how Howard’s once undeniable impact is now being challenged.

Howard is now part of a Lakers team hailed for being filled with players almost certain to make it into the Hall of Fame. During these conversations, the players mentioned are usually Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. But Howard’s name is often omitted, despite a list of accomplishments few can match. Of this group of Lakers, he plays the least, at around 15 minutes per game, and his legacy is most often questioned.

The man who was once James’ biggest opponent has faded into the background.

“Why do you think people don’t like you? Charles Barkley, in his role as a TNT analyst, asked Howard during a studio show in 2016.

After some back and forth, Howard replied, “I think I was very likable in Orlando, and the way that situation ended, I think people felt I was just a bad guy. “

He spent eight seasons with the Magic, who drafted him No. 1 overall from high school in 2004. Despite his oversized physique, keen basketball sense and talent, he once faced criticism – often to find out if he smiled too much.

“Our core group, we understood each other and if it was time not to joke, we would just say to him, ‘Not now,’ or he might feel it,” said Jameer Nelson, the Magic’s starting point guard during that Howard was there. . “We were winning so many games during that period, it’s almost like, how can you tell someone not to joke when you’re still winning? You’re still statistically one of the better teams in the league of the two sides of the field.

Howard led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009 after beating James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.

Then the troubles started. There were rumors that Howard wanted to get out of Orlando. Nelson recalled trade rumors involving other players. Sometimes these players wondered if Howard was behind them.

“It was a painful time even to come to work,” Nelson said.

One day, Van Gundy told reporters that Howard was trying to oust him, and Howard, not knowing what had just been said, accidentally crashed Van Gundy’s press conference with a smile. The awkward moment — Howard with his arm around a Van Gundy’s shoulders sipping a soda — has become a meme.

“I’m not trying to run away,” Van Gundy recently said in a phone interview. “I don’t think the incident that he and I had – we only had one – I don’t think it reflected really well on either of us.”

The Magic traded Howard to the Lakers before the 2012-13 season. The Phoenix Suns had traded guard Steve Nash to the Lakers a month earlier, and the pair appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a now infamous headline: “Now This Is Going to Be Fun.”

Nash, who had won two Most Valuable Player awards at Phoenix, broke his leg in the second game of the season. Howard struggled with injuries and faced Kobe Bryant, the face of the team. The Lakers went 45-37 and Howard was an All-Star again. But after the season ended with a first-round playoff loss, he became a free agent, leaving behind a rabid fan base.

Howard picked Houston, another team that expected him to help him win a championship and even held a special press conference with Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. But that team, with a talented guard in James Harden, wouldn’t be built around Howard either.

“You could tell it was different for him,” said Corey Brewer, who joined the Rockets in Howard’s second year there.

There were reports of discontent between Howard and Harden.

“They were just different,” Brewer said. “I wouldn’t say he wasn’t in the grip. Just different personalities. I don’t think they had any issues that I know of. We were trying to win. »

Along with Howard and Harden, the Rockets reached the Western Conference Finals in the 2014-15 season and lost to Golden State. Reviews of Howard’s acting continued; Barkley, for example, has often said that Howard never improved his game after his time in Orlando.

All the while, the sport was changing, making traditional centers like Howard less effective. After one more season in Houston, Howard spent the next five years with five teams: the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards, Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. He was also traded to the Grizzlies and Nets, then waived before playing games. He returned to the Lakers this season for a third stint.

One night in Washington, after a game early in his only season there, an arena worker shouted “Brick!” when Howard missed free throw practice, according to The Washington Post and The Athletic.

Howard hasn’t spent much physical time with the Wizards, sidelined for most of the season after back surgery.

He became seen as a problem player, complaining about his minutes and his opportunities. He was booed in Orlando and booed in Los Angeles.

When the Lakers signed him in 2019, they gave him an unsecured contract, which offered Howard little security if the reunion went badly.

“He came in every day, beat everyone up, said hello to everyone, made sure everyone knew he was happy in the situation he was in,” JaVale McGee said. , who started ahead of Howard with the Lakers in the 2019-20 season. “He was consistently the ultimate professional.”

McGee added, when asked if showing that quality seemed important to Howard: “I really think it was important just because of the hearsay and the way people talk about you in the league, in especially general managers and coaches, it can really ruin your image.

The Lakers won a championship in 2020 with Howard coming off the bench throughout the playoffs.

“You’re looking at it right now, it’s a sub,” said Smith, Howard’s former general manager. “He comes in, he adds energy, plays defense. But if you go back to his heyday when the world revolved around him and teams had to report on him before reporting on anything else, because he’s so present inside. Everyone had to adapt to that. The game has changed so much.

The way the Lakers use their centers reflects this change.

Howard started this season coming off the Lakers bench for DeAndre Jordan, who started at center. But Jordan has only played one game since Christmas. During that span, Howard only played five out of eight games and averaged 13 minutes per game. Lately, LeBron James has been the starting center for the Lakers.

Perhaps time has dulled his past accomplishments. Perhaps Howard’s complicated background affected his legacy.

“I have people asking me, ‘Oh, do you think he’s a Hall of Famer? Van Gundy said. “Do I think he’s a Hall of Famer? Are you kidding me?”

Van Gundy announced Howard’s All-NBA and defensive awards.

“Go check it out and see how many people have done this,” he said.

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