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How Dwight Howard is turning back the clock in Charlotte

After several unceremonious endings, Superman may have found his cape again with the Hornets.

Charlotte Hornets v New York Knicks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

With just over three minutes left in the second quarter of Hornets vs. Raptors on Wednesday, the cape came back on.

Dwight Howard — yes, that Dwight Howard — crossed up Jakob Poeltl before rising for a nasty two-handed stuff all over vaunted shot-blocker Serge Ibaka. For a second, Howard looked like Superman:

Or maybe it’s been longer than a second. Maybe it’s been all season.

After four straight inglorious endings in Orlando, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta, Howard has been reinvigorated in Charlotte.

Twenty games into his first year with the Hornets, Howard is averaging 15.6 points on 58 percent shooting to go with 12.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. His raw shooting percentages are down 5 percent from last year, but this is the best basketball Charlotte’s big man has played in three years.

Howard has posted at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in four of his last five games. In Charlotte’s win over Minnesota, he had 25 points, 20 rebounds, and four blocks. He got Karl-Anthony Towns in foul trouble and posted a stat line few have in NBA history — and even fewer have after age 30.

The basketball world wrote Howard off at the end of each of his past five seasons.

First, his failed experiment with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles was the beginning of the end of Bean’s Hall of Fame career. Then he couldn’t mesh well with James Harden, and the Rockets took off shortly after Howard left town. Finally, he signed a three-year, $70.5 million deal in Atlanta, only for his hometown team to deal him to Charlotte one summer later for basically nothing.

Now, he’s playing some of his best ball with the Hornets and is proving he just might not be washed up after all.

What’s changed?

In mid-September, well before the beginning of training camp let alone the regular season, Howard made a bold prediction.

“This is going to be better than my first couple of years in the league, I think,” he said, according to The Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell.

We’ve grown used to empty Dwight promises, but he’s actually backing it up for once. As of now, he’s playing a little bit better than he did in his sophomore season.

Since leaving Orlando, Howard hasn’t been the focal point of an offense. Kobe was the offense in Los Angeles, and the Rockets didn’t want Howard to have an increased offensive load in Houston. That destroyed him.

But for the first time in a while, it seems Howard has fully accepted his role. And it helps to have a head coach in Steve Clifford who knows his big man inside-out.

Clifford was an assistant with the Magic during Howard’s prime. He then joined the Lakers as an assistant in the 2012-13 season before taking the head coaching gig in Charlotte.

Clifford also has a history working with talented big men. He got his start under Jeff Van Gundy with the Knicks and Rockets, assistant coaching both a young Marcus Camby and a dominant Yao Ming.

"I know what he has to do to play well," Clifford said during Howard’s introductory press conference. "He understands that I know him. I know his game. Being around him in different settings I have a feel for what he likes to do ... There is no reason he can't get back to playing at a really high level."

Under Clifford, Howard is getting 11 touches in the paint per game, according to data from NBA.com. He averaged only seven paint touches per game in one season in Atlanta and just six per game over three seasons in Houston, including only 5.4 touches in the paint in his first season there.

Howard also got his sweet tooth in check. Once upon a time, the guy reportedly ate two dozen chocolate bars worth of sugar a day. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, that’s not the way to treat your body.

Now? He’s cut sweets out of his diet and drinks only water. Howard might not have gone vegan like many other pros, but the change in diet helped him drop 15 pounds this off-season and has contributed to a more springy, energetic player.

“Well, I wasn’t getting tired as fast during games,” he said in an interview with GQ’s Christopher Cason. “My body felt different. My face looked a little bit different. I felt all the benefits that happen when you take something bad from your diet. The biggest thing for me in games is fatigue. Usually when you eat candy, you have a good rush. It hits you and it feels great, but then once you crash, you crash. Once I took that out, I was able to play longer.”

Now you can see the difference on the floor

Dwight is getting the ball in his sweet spots — the closer to the rim, the better. He’s healthy, he has a coach with his best interests in mind and a supportive group of teammates in Charlotte.

And while it would be wrong to say Howard’s teammates in Atlanta never cheered him on, they sure never looked as riled up as the Hornets bench was after his poster dunk on Ibaka:

Many Lakers fans blamed Howard for things going south in Los Angeles. Many Rockets fans pointed the finger at him in Houston. And according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, some Hawks players cheered when they learned Atlanta traded Howard to Charlotte.

But now, Howard is thriving, and both he and Clifford called it before the season began.

Hold on, Bill Simmons, I’m not done here yet.

No one believed a traditional big man, a traditional aging big man, a traditional aging big man who thought he was still at the peak of his career, could still make a tangible impact on a playoff team. The Hornets may be 8-12, but Howard’s play is the least of their worries.

Nic Batum missed 13 games after reinjuring his elbow. Kemba Walker is dealing with a shoulder injury, and the Hornets are a bottom 10 three-point shooting team in a league trending toward trey mania.

But what they do have is stability at the center position. And for that to come from Dwight Howard, after all he’s been through, is a victory in itself.