The people who’ve seen Dwight Howard dominate the NBA up close don’t need to be reminded of how great he once 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, eight-time All-Star and All-NBA first-team member five years in a row.
When they saw the NBA’s 75th anniversary list of the greatest players ever, selected by a panel of media, players and coaches, they realized someone had been forgotten: Howard.
“That was a little crazy,” said Otis Smith, the former general manager of Orlando Magic, which built teams around Howard.
Stan Van Gundy, who coached him at his peak, said, “Whatever the reason he was locked out, there’s more to it than basketball.”
In the decade since Howard has dominated the competition, he has gone from the centerpiece of a finals team to a disappointing star to a questionable role player. The NBA’s 75th best list, which ended with 76 players due to a draw, was just one example of how Howard’s once undeniable impact is now being challenged.
Howard is now part of a Lakers team that is being hailed for being filled with players who will almost certainly make it into the Hall of Fame. During those conversations, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony are usually mentioned. But Howard’s name is often left out, despite a list of achievements that few can match. Of this group of Lakers, he plays the least, about 15 minutes per game, and his legacy is most 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, in his role as a TNT analyst, asked Howard during a studio show in 2016.
After a bit of back and forth, Howard replied, “I think I was really nice in Orlando, and the way that situation ended, I think people thought I was just this bad guy.”
He spent eight seasons with the Magic, which made him the No. 1 high school in 2004. Despite his outsized physique, basketball acumen and talent, he was criticized even then — often as to whether he smiled too much.
“Our core group, we understood each other and when it came time not to joke, we would just tell him, ‘Not now,’ or he could sense it,” said Jameer Nelson, the Magic’s launch point watch while Howard was there. . “We won so many games at the time that it’s almost like, how can you tell someone not to joke when you’re still winning? Statistically, you’re still one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the floor.”
Howard led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009 after defeating James’s 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 problems started. There were rumors that Howard wanted out of Orlando. Nelson recalled trading rumors about other players. Sometimes those players wondered if Howard was behind them.
“It was a painful time even coming to work,” Nelson said.
One day, Van Gundy told reporters that Howard was trying to evict him, and Howard, unaware of what had just been said, playfully ruined Van Gundy’s press conference with a smile. The awkward moment—Howard with his arm over the shoulders sipping a soda from Van Gundy—became a meme.
“I try not to run away from it,” Van Gundy recently said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think the incident he and I had – we only had one – I don’t think it reflected either of them well.”
The Magic traded Howard to the Lakers for the 2012-13 season. The Phoenix Suns had traded security guard Steve Nash for the Lakers a month earlier, and the pair appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with a now infamous headline, “Now This Is Going to Be Fun.”
Nash, who had won two Most Valuable Player Awards in Phoenix, broke his leg in the second game of the season. Howard struggled with injuries and collided with 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 loss in the playoffs, he moved on as a free agent, leaving behind a furious fan base.
Howard chose Houston, another team that expected to help it win a championship and that even hosted a special press conference with Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. But this team, with a talented security guard in James Harden, wouldn’t have been built around Howard either.
“You could tell it was different for him,” said Corey Brewer, who joined the Rockets there in Howard’s sophomore year.
There were reports of dissatisfaction between Howard and Harden.
“They were just different,” Brewer said. ‘I wouldn’t say it didn’t fit. Just different personalities. I don’t feel they had any problems as far as I knew. We tried to win.”
With Howard and Harden, the Rockets reached the Western Conference finals during the 2014-15 season, losing to Golden State. Criticisms 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 sport was changing, making traditional centers like Howard less effective. After another season in Houston, Howard spent the next five years in five teams: the Atlanta Hawks, the Charlotte Hornets, the Washington Wizards, the Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers. He was also traded to the Grizzlies and the Nets before being waived before playing any games. He returned to the Lakers for a third stint this season.
One night in Washington, after a game early in his solitary season there, an arena worker yelled “Brick!” when Howard missed free throws, according to The Washington Post and The Athletic.
Howard didn’t spend much time physically with the Wizards, who were sidelined for most of the season after back surgery.
He was seen as a player who would be a problem, who would complain about his minutes and chances. He was booed in Orlando and booed in Los Angeles.
When the Lakers signed him in 2019, they gave him an unguaranteed contract, which offered little security to Howard if the reunion went badly.
“He came in every day, hit everyone, said hello to everyone, made sure everyone knew he was happy in the situation he was in,” said JaVale McGee, who started for Howard with the Lakers during the 2019-20 season. . “He was consistently the ultimate professional.”
McGee added, when asked if showing that quality seemed important to Howard: “I definitely think it was important just because of rumors and the way people talk about you in the league, especially GMs and coaches. quite ruining the image.”
The Lakers won a championship in 2020 with Howard coming off the bench during the playoffs.
“If you look at him now, he’s a submarine,” said Smith, Howard’s former general manager. “He comes in, he adds some energy, plays some defense. But if you go back to his best days when the world revolved around him and teams have to answer to him before they answer to anything else because he has such a presence of inside. Everyone had to adapt to that. The game has changed so much.”
The way the Lakers use their centers reflects that change.
Howard started this season, coming off the Lakers bench for DeAndre Jordan, who started centrally. But Jordan has only played in one game since Christmas. During that time, Howard played in just five of eight games, playing an average of 13 minutes per game. Lately, LeBron James has been the starting point for the Lakers.
Perhaps time has dulled his past achievements. Perhaps Howard’s complicated journey influenced his legacy.
“I’ve got people asking me, ‘Oh, do you think he’s a Hall of Famer?'” said Van Gundy. ‘Do I think he’s a Hall of Famer? Are you joking?”
Van Gundy rattled Howard’s All-NBA and defensive awards.
“Go and see how many people have done that,” he said.