There was a brief moment in 2011, sometime mid-April, when Dwight David Howard looked invincible. His extended, springy frame moved smoothly; his eyes gleamed with confidence. His dunks were thunderous and awesome, cape or no cape. If you squinted hard enough, you might have seen traces of a young Hakeem in his squiggly yet calculated dance moves in the post. At one point or another, Shaq’s name might have been uttered in the same breath as Dwight.
That was peak Dwight: averaging a career-best 23 points per game, 14 rebounds, and two blocks in the regular season as The Man in Orlando. While wearing a Magic jersey, Dwight had been to the Finals once and was named Defensive Player of the Year twice. It was easy to like this version of Dwight: quick to laugh and lighthearted; a Superman-like figure who puts the team on his back year after year. Finishing second in voting for the MVP award that year, he was the dominant two-way big man the NBA needed. Sadly, he would never get to that same level again.
When he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012 (after reportedly asking for it incessantly), the pendulum shifted. Like any breakup, the aftermath was brutal, even so because the one who called for the separation was big on loyalty. He was “too loyal” to leave Orlando, Dwight had us believe in March of that year. But months later, he would exchange his blue and white jersey for the purple and gold colors, forming a supersquad with Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol.
“I think I was very likable in Orlando, and the way that situation ended, I think people felt as though I’m just this bad guy. I’m all about myself, I’m a diva,” Dwight later said, addressing his reputation as the NBA’s resident unlikable guy. His move to Hollywood was, understandably, criticized by purists, but it would’ve been forgiven if only it resulted to a championship. Wins absolve sins, as LeBron James proved in 2016. Dwight wouldn’t be as lucky, and despite leading the league in rebounds, irreconcilable differences between Dwight and Kobe; Dwight and Nash; Dwight and Mike D’Antoni; and Dwight and Laker nation took a toll on the LA experiment. His Laker stint turned out to be more a headache than a stab at history. The Lakers wanted Friends, they got Joey.
Dwight escaped LA quickly and brought what was left of his dignity—and diminishing athleticism—to Houston to team up with James Harden. The numbers were still there: 18 ppg, 12 rpg, 2 bpg in his first season as a Rocket. Perhaps rejuvenated by the fresh start, Dwight’s efforts earned him a spot on the Western Conference All-Star Team and the All-NBA Second Team. Yet despite all his work on the court, the narrative dragged on: Dwight is a diva who can’t play well with others. After three seasons of asking for the ball, Dwight moved on from Houston and made the most logical move for unhappy people hitting 30: he went home.
His homecoming to Atlanta had all the correct bits covered. Here’s a guy chasing the championship in big cities, losing his fans, losing himself, finding himself back home to play for a team free from drama and full of promise. But again, in true Dwight Howard fashion, the fun ended before it even began. In the regular season, Dwight contributed 13.5 ppg (his lowest scoring output since his rookie year) and 12.7 rpg. These numbers dipped to 8 ppg and 10.7 rpg in the 2017 playoffs, where his hometown Hawks were eliminated by the Washington Wizards in the first round. In two of those games, he was benched the entire fourth quarter.
“I want to make a difference. I want to make an impact, and I can’t do that on the bench,” Dwight said after the series. His statements were heard loud and clear by the Hawks, which recently traded him—together with a 31st pick—to the Charlotte Hornets for Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli, and a 41st pick. It seems to be another promising situation for 31-year-old Dwight, playing in a new city surrounded by new talent. But didn’t we say the same thing when he moved to the Lakers? And the same thing when he moved to Houston? There was a more upbeat version of that statement when he returned to Atlanta, his hometown.
Now, in his move to Charlotte—his third team in three years—the promise is no longer exciting. He will get the ball as the Hornets starting center, for sure, and he will continue to fulfill the minimum requirement of swatting shots and grabbing rebounds. But will his dunks be as thunderous and awesome as they once were from his days in Orlando? Could he soar as high as he once did in the 2008 Slam Dunk Contest? Highly unlikely. Forget age, forget the injuries. It’s the years’ worth of baggage that can truly weigh a person down.
[Photo from NBA; videos from YouTube]