Dwight Howard was once poised to be the most feared player in the NBA. Just a few years later he’s become a punchline. He was one of the NBA’s brightest, most popular young stars. He constantly wore that big 10,000-watt smile, he did dunk contests despite being 6-foot-11, he was destined for greatness and we all loved him. Now, he isn’t even an All-Star and he is largely reviled. How did we get here?
The 30-year-old’s career has spiraled into mediocrity and he only has himself to blame. Howard’s career nosedive can all be traced back to his time with the Orlando Magic when he spent the better part of a year maneuvering to have head coach Stan Van Gundy fired.
Orlando made Howard the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, and he was all potential until Van Gundy was hired as the team’s coach in 2007. Everyone knew he had the ability to be the NBA’s next great center when he was dominating at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, but until Van Gundy arrived he had just one All-Star appearance. Yes, Howard had improved steadily, but through the 2006-07 season he was still raw.
Over the next five seasons, Van Gundy and his incredibly athletic center took the Magic to new heights. Howard was First Team All-NBA in each of those years (the only years he received that honor), the Magic won two division titles and reached the NBA Finals in 2009. Howard was in his prime professionally and what should have been a stepping stone to greatness wound up being the top of his disappointing mountain.
After the Magic lost in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, Howard began to rebel against his coach. He now admits asking Orlando to fire SVG after the 2011 season. Even Van Gundy knew Howard wanted him out, which led to one of the most awkward press conferences in sports history:
After another first-round exit in the 2012 playoffs, Orlando canned Van Gundy. Three months later Howard worked his way out of town as well, as he pressured the Magic to trade him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Howard’s tenure in Los Angeles was, by any measure, an abject disaster. The team entered the season with championship hype but wound up going 45-37 and getting swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs. His one season in Hollywood was marked by constant controversy that included battles with Kobe Bryant, head coach Mike D’Antoni and the free throw line.
Howard then hit free agency in the summer of 2013 and reportedly asked the Lakers to use their amnesty provision on Bryant and turn the franchise over to him. He wanted to be given the keys to the kingdom without actually doing anything to earn them.
At that point, Howard showed his true colors. Rather than embracing the challenge of playing with a difficult teammate like Bryant and taking the tough love someone like that hands out, he shied away from it. Bryant basically told Howard he wanted to turn him from a good player into a world-beating monster capable of dominating the league. Rather than accepting what Bryant could teach he, again, found a way to run. Howard signed with the Houston Rockets so he could play second-fiddle to James Harden. Instead of learning how to be a killer, he was content with remaining a clown.
During his six seasons under Van Gundy, Howard averaged 20.0 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 36.7 minutes per game. Since he left Orlando, he has averaged 16.7 points, 11.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 33.5 minutes per game. In 41 games during the 2014-15 season, Howard’s points per game average dropped to 15.8 and this season it has continued to plummet, bottoming out at a dismal 14.6. His efficiency rating has also dropped off since he bolted from the Magic, this year it sits at 20.29 after a high of 26.13 during the 2010-11 season.
The Rockets, who had championship aspirations when they signed Howard, haven’t lived up to expectations and have fallen apart this season. Houston is currently 27-28 and battling for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
Now Howard is up to his old tricks again, as he and Harden have reportedly both tried to get management to trade the other. It has become Howard’s modus operandi that when things get tough, he tries to force other people out. Like a six-year-old, he runs from difficulty rather than embrace the challenge it presents. Howard has a long history of wanting to be treated like an alpha dog despite acting like a puppy.
The thing is, we should have known this was coming. The way he acted during the Van Gundy mess told us all we needed to know.
Howard wants to be comfortable more than he wants to win. He doesn’t have that killer instinct and deep desire to be a champion that drives all the greats. While he has as much talent and athletic ability as any post player to ever step on an NBA floor, he doesn’t have the passion to reach his full potential.
That is who the real Dwight Howard is. At this point nothing he does should surprise us.
Dwight is all about Dwight. Maybe he’ll change his ways, but he hasn’t so far, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever mature into someone whose top concern is winning no matter the cost.