The Rebuilding Of Dwight Howard Begins
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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VIDEO OF THE DAY – Dwight Howard Pt. 2
Dwight Howard talks about joining the Houston Rockets and the keys to living up to the high expectations that have come with his arrival.Watch More Video Here
Two years ago, there was no arguing over who the best center in the league was. It was Dwight Howard and no one else was even worth bringing up in the discussion. Howard was the best; he was the premiere defensive presence in the league and overwhelming, albeit unpolished, offensively.
At the time, nobody could blame him.
While he was posting up monster double-doubles night in and night out, the Orlando Magic front office disassembled the 2009 Eastern Conference championship squad, only to put together a much less competitive team. Howard lost faith in the Magic’s ability to put a contender around him, with good reason.
Howard’s public perception was never the same after that.
His intent on exploring his playing options outside of Orlando had a widespread impact throughout the league that matched the impact he made on the court. It not only negatively affected the Magic organization in every aspect, but all of the players who were reportedly being offered in exchange for Howard.
It didn’t help that during that stretch, Howard wavered on his desire to leave Orlando and his production declined. In his final year with the Magic, the 2011-12 season, Howard suffered the first major injury of his career. He needed back surgery, but while recovering he finally got his wish: he had been traded out of Orlando.
Out of Orlando and now with one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers, everyone expected the Howard saga to finally end. He was surrounded by some of the best players of the last decade in the league’s biggest market, but it turned out to be a well-documented nightmare from the start.
For the second straight season, Howard’s production declined. And for the third straight season, he went without winning a playoff game.
That’s led to the conversation over the best center in the league actually becoming a debate. Memphis’ Marc Gasol has taken that honor now in a lot of people’s eyes; Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Brook Lopez also get mentioned as well.
The only major positive to come from his tenure in Los Angeles was that once it was over he could finally choose to play wherever he wanted.
It took two years of indecisiveness, rumors, firings, trades and struggles, but Howard was finally free. Free to choose where he wanted to revitalize his career, who he wanted to play with and most importantly: the place where he could be happy again.
Houston turned out to be that place, and while everyone was shocked to see a star player of Howard’s caliber leave the Lakers, it’s easy to see now why he made the choice. He’s only been with the team for a little over two months, but the fit already seems so natural and perfect that you have to wonder why Howard even bothered meeting with other teams. Houston has everything he could want and while they can’t match the history of the Lakers, there’s no denying that Howard’s future looks just as bright now as it would have if he stayed, if not brighter.
“I’m just excited about the opportunity to play with these young guys, they’re full of energy,” Howard said to HOOPSWORLD. “We’re playing pickup and they want to play 10-12 games. I’m like, ‘Guys I’m almost pushing 30 I need a break,’ but I love it. They’re full of life. After practice everyone is together talking, I just love that feeling. It reminds me of the team that went to the Finals in Orlando, we were always together. Everything we did was together. It really makes the team better on the floor when you have that great chemistry off the court.
“We all have the same goal, which is just to win a championship. We understand it’s not going to be easy, there’s a lot of great teams in the West, but we have an opportunity to do something special. If we stay together and stay focused for the whole season, I really believe in this team, I really believe in our coach. I really believe in [owner] Les [Alexander]. He’s put together a great team, he’s been doing whatever he can do to make sure we have everything we need to be successful on the court. He just finished a beautiful locker room, everything in it is just for us to play better. They’ve done their job, now it’s time for us to do ours.”
Whether it was because of injuries or the uncertainty that his future held – or most likely a combination of both factors — we haven’t seen Howard in his peak form for two years. He’s fully healthy now, recovered from the back surgery that not only ended his career with the Magic prematurely, but also held him back for most of his time with the Lakers. Equally as vital, Howard also doesn’t have to worry about any more questions about free agency, those aren’t coming back for at least three years.
“It’s all over and done with,” Howard said. “I’m in a better place mentally, physically and spiritually now. I’m ready for the season.”
Houston provides Howard with the fresh start his career desperately needed, and a supporting cast that ranks right up there with the group he was able to help lead to the 2009 Finals. He also has a new mentor in Hakeem Olajuwon, a Hall of Fame center who won two championships with the Rockets and still resides in Houston. Olajuwon and Rockets head coach Kevin McHale will work with Howard to not just regain his prior level of dominance, but surpass it with a new, refined offensive attack.
“The biggest thing they want me to do is not use my power so much all the time and use my speed and quickness to get around guys, finish over the top,” Howard said. “I got a lot of fouls last season and the past couple of years just trying to use my power and guys falling, me getting offensive fouls.”
What won’t be changing is Howard’s demeanor on the court. Always looked at as one of the more joyful players on the hardwood, to the point where many, especially some of the all-time greats, consider it a weakness. It often came up as one of the issues that made Howard’s tenure as a Laker so tumultuous, but everyone in Houston is embracing and encouraging Howard’s fun-lovingness.
“We’re lucky to be playing basketball for a living,” Rockets forward Chandler Parson said. “It’s the best job in the world. We should have fun doing it. He definitely does, the style we play is a lot more fun than any style he’s ever played in. If you thought he was happy go lucky now, I can’t imagine how he’s going to be this season playing in our system and playing with us.”
Neither can Howard, and that’s why Houston was so appealing.
Howard has a lot of making up to do with everything that has occurred over the last two years if he’s going to regain his status as the league’s best center and a marketable superstar. But with how much potential Houston holds for him, he could be looking back at that dark period in his career and think that everything was all worth it in very short order.