People who have watched Dwight Howard dominate the NBA need no mention 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, an eight-time All-Star and a member of the first All-NBA team for five years in a row.
When they saw the list of the best players of all time for the 75th anniversary of the NBA, selected by a panel of media, players and coaches, they realized that they had forgotten someone: Howard.
“That was a little crazy,” said Otis Smith, a former Orlando Magic general manager who built teams around Howard.
Stan Van Gundy, who coached him at the top, said, “Whatever he’s left out, there’s more to it than just basketball.”
In the ten years since Howard dominated the league, he has turned from a mid-final team into a disappointed star to a dubious player. The list of the top 75 NBA, which ended with 76 players due to a draw, was just one example of how Howard’s once undeniable influence is now being questioned.
Howard is now part of the Lakers team, celebrated for being full of players who will almost certainly make it to the Hall of Fame. During these interviews, 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 achievements that few can match. Of this group, the Lakers play the least, about 15 minutes per game, and his legacy is most often questioned.
The man who had once been James’s greatest adversary receded into the background.
“Why do you think people don’t like you?” In his role as a TNT analyst, Charles Barkley asked Howard during a studio show in 2016.
After a while back and forth, Howard replied, “I think I was very nice in Orlando, and as this situation ended, I think people felt like I was just such a bad person.”
He spent eight seasons at Magic, which drafted him number one in high school in 2004. Despite his great stature, basketball acumen, and talent, he still faced criticism – often because he smiled too much.
“Our core group, we understood, and if it was time not to joke, we’d tell him, ‘Not now,’ or he sensed it,” said Jameer Nelson, the guardian of Magic’s starting point when Howard was there. . “We’ve won so many games in that time, it’s almost like telling someone not to joke if you’re still winning? You are still statistically one of the best teams in the league at both ends of the field. “
Howard led the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals after defeating James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals and lost to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.
Then trouble began. Howard wanted to get out of Orlando. Nelson remembered the rumors that were about other players. Sometimes these players wondered if Howard was behind them.
“It was a painful time to come to work,” Nelson said.
One day, Van Gundy told reporters that Howard was trying to oust him, and Howard, unaware of what had just been said, playfully smashed Van Gundy’s press conference. The awkward moment – Howard with his arm over Van Gundy’s shoulders sipping soda – became a meme.
“I’m not trying to run away from this,” Van Gundy said recently in a telephone interview. “I don’t think the incident he and I had – we only had one – I don’t think it would affect one of us well.”
Magic traded Howard to the Lakers before the 2012-13 season. The Phoenix Suns traded Steve Nash’s bodyguards for the Lakers a month ago, and the pair appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, along with the now infamous headline: “Now This Is Going to Be Fun.”
Nash, who won two awards for the most useful player in Phoenix, broke his leg in the second game of the season. Howard struggled with injuries and clashed with Kobe Bryant, the team’s face. The Lakers went 45-37 and Howard was the All-Star again. But after the season ended in a loss in the first round of the playoffs, he switched as a free agent, leaving behind an enraged fan base.
Howard chose Houston, another team that expected him to help him win the championship, and which even held a special press conference with Hake Olajuwon and Yao Ming. But this team with the talented guardian in James Harden would also not be built around Howard.
“You could see it was different for him,” said Corey Brewer, who joined the Rockets 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 work out.” Just different personalities. I don’t feel like they have any problems I knew about. We tried to win. “
With Howard and Harden, the Rockets advanced to the Western Conference finals in the 2014-15 season and lost to Golden State. Criticism of Howard’s play continued; Barkley, for example, often said that Howard had never improved his game since his time in Orlando.
The sport has been changing all along and traditional centers like Howard have been less effective. After another season in Houston, Howard spent another five years in five teams – the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards, Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. He was also traded to the Grizzlies and Nets, then surrendered before playing any games. He returned to the Lakers this season for a third stint.
One evening in Washington, after a match at the beginning of his lonely season there, an arena worker shouted “Brick!” when Howard missed a training free throw, according to The Washington Post and The Athletic.
Howard didn’t spend much time physically with the Wizards, they stopped most of the season after back surgery.
He began to be perceived as a problem player who would complain about his minutes and opportunities. He was booed in Orlando and Los Angeles.
When the Lakers signed him in 2019, they gave him a non-guaranteed contract, which provided Howard with little security if the reunion failed.
“He came every day, pounded everyone, said hello to everyone and made sure everyone knew he was happy in the situation he was in,” said JaVale McGee, who started ahead of Howard with the Lakers in the 2019-20 season. “He was always the top professional.”
Asked if it seemed important to Howard to show this quality, McGee added: “I definitely think it was important only because of the hearing and the way people in the league talk about you, especially GMs and coaches. It can really ruin your image. ”
The Lakers won the 2020 championship with Howard, who was missing from the bench during the playoffs.
“Look at him right now, he’s a submarine,” said Smith, Howard’s former general manager. “He’s coming, he’s energizing, he’s playing some defense. But if you go back to his best years, when the world revolved around him and the teams must be held accountable for him before they are responsible for anything else, because he is so present inside. Everyone had to adapt. The game has changed a lot. “
The way the Lakers use their centers reflects this change.
Howard started this season from the Lakers bench behind DeAndre Jordan, who started downtown. But Jordan has only played one match since Christmas. During this time, Howard played only five of eight games and an average of 13 minutes per game. Recently, the Lakers LeBron James was the starting point.
Maybe time dulled his past successes. Perhaps Howard’s complicated journey affected his legacy.
“I have people who ask me like, ‘Oh, do you think he’s a member of the Hall of Fame?'” Van Gundy said. “I think he’s a member of the Hall of Fame?” Are you kidding me?”
Van Gundy shook Howard’s All-NBA and defensive prizes.
“Go see and see how many people have done it,” he said.