Dwight Howard's fall from grace has been truly odd. Just two years ago, he finished No. 2 in MVP voting. Sure, that was the asterisk year in which LeBron James was left off of some ballots because of, one imagines, The Decision. But it was a 23-14 season and a third Defensive Player of the Year award season for Howard. Yes, 23-14 -- superlative per-game numbers for anyone -- plus the DPOY. When teams draft raw big men impossibly high, that's what they are begging to get.
But then it all fell apart: the circumstances around his brewing free agency wrecked Orlando's 2011-12 season even before Howard's back gave out, requiring surgery. The subsequent offseason trade to the Lakers set up the unique experience of Los Angeles getting one of the top players in the world, and in him a star who adores the spotlight, only to see him abandon ship. Someday we'll look back on the history of the Lakers and Howard leaving at first opportunity will look like a typo. That's not what usually happens to the Lakers. That's what usually happens to other teams to the benefit of the Lakers.
Alas, Howard never meshed with Kobe Bryant or Mike D'Antoni, and for once in his professional life he made a swift, decisive resolution to join the Rockets. And now, we find out if the 27-year-old edition of Dwight Howard is who he was the past two seasons -- a whole lot of drama, sub-elite production -- or if he's still of kin to the Dwight Howard who, again, was No. 2 in MVP voting just two years ago. The Rockets' season rides on the answer to that question.
This Rockets club is easily as talented or more talented than the 2008-09 Magic team Howard led to the NBA Finals. Orlando had a peaking Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis; James Harden is currently better than either ever was, and Houston's depth is pretty solid if lacking in reliable supplemental stars. (Which is to say that Chandler Parsons is pretty good, but he's even better for having had Carlos Delfino and Francisco Garcia behind him.) There is a deficit on the bench when it comes to coaching, however, and not because Kevin McHale is clearly a lesser game manager than Stan Van Gundy. It's more because S.V.G. had experience building a system around Howard by '08-09, whereas McHale is coming in fresh. In fact, in McHale's coaching career, he's never had a post player of this caliber to build around. (His bench work in Minnesota included Al Jefferson and Kevin Love, but it was also abrupt and tanked by a multitude of other realities.)
The comparison between Howard's best teams of the past and this Rockets roster is primarily about how Howard plays, and how Howard plays with Harden. I doubt there will be any issue; as if we don't have proof that Harden can be superb when a second or even third weapon is on the floor. The idea that Harden will bristle for having to share the spotlight with Howard based on the fact that Harden left Oklahoma City is wholly unfounded; Harden was traded, and the reason was that the Thunder wanted to pay him less than what he was worth. OKC wanted an eight-figure discount. Harden declined. OKC flipped him for assets. All else is conjecture.
Howard has been tagged with those questions -- about sharing the spotlight -- as well, and his exit from L.A. didn't help. The rumor mill suggested he bristled at the idea of genuflecting before Kobe Bryant for two or three more years, years which happen to be the age-projected prime of his career. But that may have been more about Kobe, about the dismissal of Mike Brown and the hiring of D'Antoni, about the L.A. power structure specifically. I, for one, refuse to curse this new partnership between Howard and Harden before any evidence of its impending failure presents itself. If the duo fails because of personality conflicts, role jockeying or whatever, I want to see it happen before I prepare a eulogy.
In the meantime, in preparation of what's to come in Houston, we remember Howard at his height, and wonder if those summits will be conquered again or left in our increasingly distant memories of a superstar whose career took a couple of weird, unfortunate turns and never recovered.