Dwight Howard and True Silliness
It’s now July, which means the NBA’s silly season is now upon us. As with any good silly season, most of the media attention has been focused around the thoughts and decisions of one man. In 2010, LeBron James started the trend of having all potential suitors come to him to ask him to prom make their pitch as to why their team is the best destination for the player. The 2011 class didn’t feature any free agents with enough star power to draw this kind of attention. In 2012, it was Deron Williams who commanded the attention of the sports world en route to signing with the Brooklyn Nets. This year, it’s everyone’s favorite whipping boy Dwight Howard garnering all the attention.
Now that Dwight is getting the full court press from potential suitors, he’s also getting the full court press from media, fans, and former players as well. Howard has been called everything from petulant, immature, uncaring, indecisive, and a loser. According to most people, teams that are angling to sign Dwight would get better value for their money by burning the money and using the flames to heat their arena.
Yet these people couldn’t be more wrong.
It’s impossible to properly discuss the Dwight situation without delving into his injury history. While a torn labrum tends to be a much bigger issue for MLB pitchers than NBA centers, the back injury is definitely concerning, especially for a seven footer. It is a pretty big risk to give a player with back issues a max contract, but Dwight Howard is clearly worth the risk.
When healthy, Dwight is the second most dominant player in the NBA. People easily forget things in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of sports, but it was just five years ago that Dwight dragged the Orlando Magic (Jameer Nelson was injured most of the year) to the finals, and just four years ago he dragged the Magic to the conference finals.
But it’s more than just the fact that Dwight was the best player on a finals team. Those Magic teams were completely reliant on his post play and fantastic defense for their style of play to work. Those teams featured the likes of Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Rafer Alston, J.J. Redick, and Vince Carter. What do those players have in common? They were all great shooters and allergic to playing defense. Howard’s dominant post play forced opponents into one of two bad choices: they could either double Dwight and hope Orlando’s shooters missed open treys or they could play Dwight one-on-one and hope their big guys could somehow slow him down.
More important was Dwight’s impact on defense. Before injuring his back, Howard dominated the paint on defense. He allowed the Magic to play the diminutive Nelson and the slow-footed Turkoglu and Lewis together on the floor at the same time. But that understates Dwight’s impact. Those two Magic teams finished first and second in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) those years (via hoopdata.com), even though they played three poor defenders most of the time. If you watched Dwight Howard play before the back injury, it’s obvious that calling Dwight a loser is an egregious example of using a national platform to prove just how little you understand basketball and the world in which you reside.
Now obviously, one can’t just pretend the last three seasons never happened. It was three seasons ago that the Magic roster started to crumble. That was the season where the Magic traded the carcass of Rashard Lewis to Washington in exchange for the carcass of Gilbert Arenas, as well as trading to get Hedo Turkoglu back in an effort to rekindle the Magic of 08-09 (see what I did there?). If you look at that roster, it’s clearly not a championship caliber team, especially considering they were in the same division as the newly anointed juggernaut Miami Heat.
It was during the 2010-11 season where peoples’ perception of the current Dwight Howard began to take shape. It became clear during this season that the window had closed on the Magic as a championship contender. That’s not an excuse for Dwight’s drawn out, will-he-or-won’t-he saga, but it’s hardly the first time we’ve seen athletes leave their teams in the lurch. As for Dwight’s single season in Laker Land, it was hardly as bad as people remember. Despite having a misfit and heavily injured roster that didn’t mesh with the head coach’s style of play and a center with significant back and shoulder injuries, the Lakers went 28-12 over their last 40 games to squeak out an 8th seed after having been left for dead after a tough first half. The Lakers were finally beginning to show why everyone was so excited about them in the off-seson until Kobe brutally tore his achilles and ended any thought of them giving the Spurs a fight in the first round.
In the bigger picture, the courtship of Dwight is nothing out of the ordinary. The NBA is a superstar league. Always has been, always will be. That’s why teams do anything they can to get a superstar on their team; you can’t win without them. And a healthy Dwight is most certainly a superstar. As for the billboards and private meetings with potential suitors, the deification of athletes is nothing new. The same type of recruitment that’s happening to Dwight right now happens to high school recruits dozens of times every year and no one bats an eye.
All in all, the Dwight Howard saga is anything but. This is a player who has shown to be one of the top two players in the league, key words being “already shown”. While there’s no excuse for his indecisiveness, he’s still just 27. And while he has dealt with injuries, he’s more likely than not to be a franchise-altering player. To suggest that teams should avoid trying to sign him gives a whole new definition to the silly season.