The Dwight Howard Dilemma

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LOS ANGELES — Three plays in Charlotte’s 106-98 loss to the Clippers on New Year’s Eve summarized years of frustration I’ve felt following the career of Dwight Howard.

  • DeAndre Jordan sagged off when Dwight received an interior pass along the baseline. Howard squared up not more than 12 feet from the rim, hesitated, and passed off.
  • Howard made a strong move in the lane, then attempted an air-balled sky hook.
  • Blake Griffin took a pass at the free throw line, with defense out of position. He had a full head of steam coming down the lane with one man to beat — Dwight Howard, one of the premier rim protectors in the NBA for the past decade. However, Howard took a step away from the play. Perhaps discretion’s the better part of valor, as Griffin’s stocked highlight reels with exactly these kind of plays, only in this instance Griffin was one game back from an early return from a knee injury. Lacking the explosiveness he’d typically have, his charge down the lane resulted in a soft layup Howard could have defended had he chosen.

So it’s a tiny sample size for a player in his 14th season, well into the twilight of his career — a career that included leading a team to the NBA Finals, three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards, and five 1st Team All-NBA honors. Legendary centers Bill Russell and David Robinson ended their NBA tenures with three and four 1st Team All-NBA selections.

Of course, Russell played head-to-head against Wilt Chamberlain and Robinson’s era was the Golden Age for centers with superstars Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal all terrorizing the paint from the latter half of the 1980s through the 1990s.

Dwight Howard came into the NBA at a time when the traditional center began to disappear. His closest contemporary for big-man supremacy was arguably Yao Ming. Cut like David Robinson with Karl Malone’s pure mass, combined with the vertical explosiveness of Phoenix Suns-era Larry Nance, Howard is a physical outlier in the same way Wilt, Shaq and LeBron were physical outliers.

Dwight won’t be remembered as fondly as that trio, however. Fans and media might debate other players more, but I contend no player of the post-Jordan era is viewed more harshly than Howard. I caught a glimpse of a monitor on press row tuned to the FOX Sports Prime Ticket game broadcast, and a chyron superimposed under Howard read “8-time NBA All-Star: None since 2013-14.”

Clippers fans in attendance at Staples Center booed lustily every time his name was mentioned over the PA or whenever he touched the ball — and bear in mind, it was their Los Angeles rival, the Lakers, that Howard left in a rather acrimonious split, not the Clippers. And that’s not a reaction reserved for Los Angeles.

Certainly I cannot speak for countless NBA fans, but I cannot imagine I’m alone in my attitude toward Howard coming down to frustration. He ranks among the most decorated centers in NBA history, yet there’s a non-quantifiable sense underachievement defines Howard’s career.

He finished Sunday’s game with more turnovers than points and just one made field goal. His air-balled hook and refusal to attempt a short-range jump shot spoke to the stagnation that impeded his offensive repertoire throughout his career. It’s especially maddening now in an era with various 6-foot-10 and taller players who shoot 3-pointers as effectively as traditional wings, or attack the rim off the bounce like point guards.

The more I rattle off complaints about Howard’s surefire Hall of Fame career, the more I feel like little Billy berating Kareem on his dad’s behalf.

And, admittedly, there is an element of over-demanding fandom dogging Dwight Howard’s career. He was an absolute force defensively in his time with the Magic, and virtually unstoppable on the glass. His offensive repertoire may have been limited, but he did not deviate from what he did well, shooting 57 percent or better from the floor every season from 2006-07 until this year. In 2009, he came about as close to singlehandedly willing a team to the NBA Finals as any player before or since LeBron with the Cavaliers in 2007.

Even now with the Charlotte Hornets, Howard’s averaging 15.6 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. He boasts a PER of 17.7, second-best on the team behind only likely All-Star selection Kemba Walker. Dwight was awful against the Clippers, sure, but he’s played his best basketball since the 2013-14 season.

Criticism for Howard stems less from what he accomplished than it does from the expectation or the hope of what he could have been. But then, whose fault is that?

Chuck Klosterman devotes a chapter of his 2010 book Eating The Dinosaur to Ralph Sampson, one of the greatest players in college basketball history, who never quite lived up to expectations in the NBA. Klosterman’s explanation for the lofty expectations set for Sampson fit the same narrative surrounding Howard, in that both were physical outliers. But Klosterman’s examination of the center’s career dovetails into a larger thesis on the unfair standard consumers of pop culture set for celebrities.

The underwhelming appreciation for Dwight Howard’s career isn’t entirely a construct of unrealistic standards; the Hornets are his fourth team in five seasons. He publicly railroaded Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, and has never really fit in anywhere since. The impression he’s a malcontent does his overall image no favors — and at this juncture in his career, there’s no rescuing his image.

He could become a spark plug for a championship team a la Bob McAdoo with the Lakers or Bill Walton with the Celtics, but his path suggests more Shaq bouncing from the Suns to Cavaliers to Celtics.

Dwight Howard’s place in NBA history is complicated — and somehow as simple as three plays on a Sunday afternoon.