Those who watched Dwight Howard closely on the NBA need not be reminded of how great he once was.
He remembers when he and LeBron James were the best players in the league. He remembers what made Howard a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, an eight-time All-Star, and a member of the All-NBA First Team for five consecutive years.
When he saw the list of the best players selected by a panel of media, players and coaches for the NBA’s 75th anniversary, he realized someone had been forgotten: Howard.
“It was kind of crazy,” said former Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith, who built teams around Howard.
Said by Stan Van Gundy, who coached him at his peak: “For whatever reason he left, it has something other than basketball.”
In the decade that Howard dominated the league, he went from being the centerpiece of a finals team, from disappointing star to questionable roleplayer. The NBA’s 75 best list, which ended with 76 players due to a tie, was just one example of how Howard’s once undeniable influence is now challenged.
Howard is now part of the Lakers team that is full of players almost certain to make it to the Hall of Fame. During those conversations, the players most commonly cited are Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony. But Howard’s name is often omitted, despite the list of achievements few can match. Of this group of Lakers, he plays the shortest at around 15 minutes per game, and his legacy is often questioned.
The man who was once James’ greatest adversary has faded into the background.
“Why do you think people don’t like you?” Charles Barkley asked Howard in his role as TNT analyst during a studio show in 2016.
After a little back-and-forth, Howard replied: “I think I was pretty likable in Orlando, and the way the situation ended, I think people thought I was just such a bad guy. “
He spent eight seasons with the Magic, which saw him being drafted No. 1 overall from high school in 2004. Despite his outlandish physique, basketball skills, and talent, he still faced criticism – often about whether he smiled too much.
“Our core group, we understood each other and if it was time not to joke, we’d just tell him, ‘Not now,’ or he might figure it out,” said Jamir Nelson, Magic’s starting point guard. said while Howard was there. , “We were winning so many games during that time, it’s almost like, How can you tell someone not to joke when you’re still winning? You’re still going to have the best teams in the league on both ends of the floor. are one of them.”
Howard led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009 after defeating James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals, and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.
Then the trouble started. Howard wanted to get out of Orlando. Nelson recalled business rumors that had emerged about the other players. Sometimes those players wondered if Howard was behind them.
“It was also a painful time 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, playfully crashed Van Gundy’s news conference with a smile. The awkward moment—Howard with his arm on the shoulders of a soda-sipping van Gundy—became a meme.
“I’m not trying to run away from it,” Van Gundy said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t think the incident that happened to him and me – we only had one – I don’t think it reflected realistically well on either of us.”
The Magic traded Howard to the Lakers prior to 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 the now infamous headline: “now it’s gonna be fun,
Nash, who won two Most Valuable Player awards at Phoenix, broke his leg in the second game of the season. Howard struggled with injuries and clashed with Kobe Bryant in the face of the team. The Lakers went 45-37 and Howard was an All-Star again. But after ending the season with a first-round defeat in the playoffs, he moved on as a free agent, leaving behind an angry fan base.
Howard chose Houston, another team he hoped to help win the championship and which also staged a special news conference with Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. But even this team wouldn’t be built around Howard, with a talented guard in James Harden.
“You can tell it was different for them,” said Corey Brewer, who joined the Rockets in Howard’s second year.
There were reports of discontent between Howard and Harden.
“They were just different,” Brewer said. “I wouldn’t say it wasn’t a trap. Just different personalities. I don’t think they had any problems that I knew about. We were trying to win.”
Along with Howard and Harden, the Rockets made the Western Conference Finals during the 2014–15 season and lost to Golden State. Criticism of Howard’s game continued; For example, Barkley often said that Howard never improved his game after his time in Orlando.
All the while, the game was changing, making traditional centers like Howard’s less effective. After another season in Houston, Howard spent the next five years on five teams – the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards, Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. He was also traded to the Grizzlies and Nets, then pardoned before playing any games. He returned for a third stint at the Lakers this season.
Howard did not spend much time physically with the Wizards, sidelined for most of the season after back surgery.
He was seen as a player who would be a problem, complaining about his minutes and chances. He was booed in Orlando and was booed in Los Angeles.
When the Lakers signed him in 2019, they gave him a non-guaranteed contract that provided little protection for Howard if the reunion went awry.
Javle McGee, who started ahead of Howard with the Lakers during the 2019–20 season, said, “He came every day, pissed everyone off, said hello to everyone, made sure everyone knew the position he was in. Happy with that.” “He was consistently the ultimate professional.”
McGee said, when asked if that quality seemed important to Howard: “I definitely think it was important just because of the rumors and the way people in the league talk about you, especially GM and Coach. It can really tarnish your image.”
The Lakers won a championship in 2020 with Howard off the bench during the playoffs.
“You look at him now, he’s a deputy,” said Smith, Howard’s former general manager. “He comes in, he adds some energy, plays some defense. But if you go back to his prime, when the world revolves around him and teams have to account for him before he can do anything else Because he is such a presence from within. Everyone had to adjust for that. The game has changed a lot.”
The way the Lakers use their centers reflects that change.
Howard started the season off the Lakers’ bench for DeAndre Jordan, who started in the center. But Jordan has played only one match since Christmas. In that period, Howard has played only five out of eight games and averaged 13 minutes per game. Lately, LeBron James has been the starting center of the Lakers.
Perhaps time has tarnished his past achievements. Perhaps Howard’s complicated journey has influenced his legacy.
“I’ve had people ask 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 breaks down Howard’s All-NBA and defensive awards.
“Go and see how many people have done that,” he said.