Somewhere along the way, the sideshow surrounding Dwight Howard trumped his game. It wasn't just one thing.
It was the on-again off-again trade demands in Orlando, and the way the news cycle stayed tied to the weekly changes of Howard's whim. It was how he carried himself, mooning reporters in the locker room and tweeting objectively terrible jokes. It was the way he seemed overeager to capitalize on his personal brand, when everything he was doing actually had the opposite effect of what he intended. And all of that was even before addressing the tangible on-court problems that made his one season with the Lakers a living nightmare for everyone involved.
The 2012-13 Lakers seem like a parable in retrospect, one warning against the hazards of betting on the old and injured in a young man's league. With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see how they ever could have achieved their impossibly high expectations. The purported savior at point guard was 38 years old and was damaged goods by the second game of the season. The situation was unstable enough for the head coach to get fired after five games. Still, most of the blame appeared to fall at the feet of Howard. Superman just wasn't strong enough.
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The truth is that Howard was playing hurt all season and still averaged more than 35 minutes a night. It never should have been about Dwight failing to rise to the Lakers' imaginary standard. It was everyone around him who was failing.
It's easier to remember the narrative than the production, but Dwight was still very good in Los Angeles. Brook Lopez was the only center who outscored him by more than seven tenths of a point per game. He was second in the league in field goal percentage and led the league in rebounding. His defensive stats, according to MySynergySports.com, were incredible across the board. And he did all of it after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back the April before. Howard wasn't as good for the Lakers as he was during his peak in Orlando, but it's not too difficult argue he was still the best center in the league.
There's no doubt who the best center in basketball is this season. Though Howard struggled on Thursday in Houston's loss to the Thunder, he's been enjoying another great season. Away from the bright lights of Los Angeles and, more importantly, surrounded by better players and a smarter organization, Howard is thriving. The circus is finally over. Dwight can focus on basketball, and the result is a bounce-back year devoid of drama.
The Rockets are fourth in offense and No. 10 in defense this season, and much of it is because of Howard's impact. He's able to run the floor with his teammates the way Omer Asik couldn't a year ago, and though Asik is one of the league's best interior defenders, Howard is likely even better. The Rockets defense is nearly four points better per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor this season, per NBA.com. He's No. 10 among big men in opponents' field goal percentage at the rim. It's not like he's getting any help from his guards, either; James Harden couldn't check Steve Blake. Houston's perimeter defense is a sieve, but Howard has been good enough to erase plenty of their mistakes.
Offensively, DeMarcus Cousins is the only center scoring more often than Dwight. Per MySynergySports.com, Howard is No. 1 in the league scoring off cuts this year. He's shooting 85.7 percent in those situations and is averaging 1.64 points per possession. He also remains a killer as the roll man in a pick-and-roll, scoring 1.27 PPP and shooting 70 percent.
None of this should be surprising, yet for a certain segment, it probably is. All of the irritation over Howard's supposed lack of a post game belied the fact that he's excellent at scoring in almost any other situation. (And that much-maligned post game has recovered this year, too). It's another example of what can happen when someone is trapped in a pre-existing narrative. It's something that's tough to recover from for even the most likable athletes.
So, what's Dwight Howard, really? More than anything, he's a rare beast. An elite two-way center is toughest type of player to find in the NBA. It's basketball's version of a power-hitting, slick fielding shortstop or rocket-armed and accurate quarterback. Tim Duncan has been the gold standard for a big man who imposes his will on both ends of the floor for the last 17 years. Anthony Davis, and maybe soon Joel Embiid, are the future.
Whatever the reason, it's sometimes tough to appreciate what's right in front of our own eyes. That's Dwight Howard, whether you like him or not.