How Dwight Howard Went From Superman To His Last Chance In The NBA

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Every star has a moment. A play, a game, just something that we acknowledge as the moment they became a star. For Dwight Howard that moment came against the San Antonio Spurs.

There were 0.8 seconds left on the clock. Just long enough to get off a quick shot or maybe a tip play if that opened up. The Magic opted to go with the latter, but what Brian Hill drew up for Orlando was not just a tip play. It was something that only Howard would be able to do. A play that only someone with his athleticism and coordination would be able to pull it off. It was the moment when Dwight Howard became a star for the Magic.

Howard didn’t just go up and tip the ball in for the win. No, he took the ball and dunked it. Something that big men just didn’t do. Especially back in 2007. The big man was supposed to be a giant ball that powered their way to the rim, or protected the paint with size and strength. Howard, though, was quick, athletic, and leaped around. Incredibly athletic big men dominate the NBA now, but when Howard was doing it he was a specimen, the type of which hadn’t been seen since the last time the Magic selected a center first overall.

He showcased that athleticism in the 2008 NBA Dunk contest. Everyone remembers the Superman dunk — him leaping and throwing the ball into the rim became his image — but that was arguably not even his best dunk of the night. Between the opening windmill and the tap off the glass he just continued to defy expectations over and over again that night for what a big man in the dunk contest was supposed to look like.

There just weren’t guys like Dwight Howard in the NBA and when you’re something fresh and new, you also become immensely popular very quickly. There’s a clip that, in retrospect, is kind of funny now. It’s from the 2009 dunk contest. Jalen Rose is lamenting Howard using too many props, but talking about how much he enjoys Howard’s personality.

If you asked someone what their thoughts on Howard were today you’d get a myriad of answers, and few of them would be kind. From the benign like, “annoying” and “man child,” to far more serious assertions like “locker room cancer.” Howard’s fall from grace is something that, in retrospect, seems insane. This guy wasn’t just someone that people in Orlando liked because he led them to the NBA Finals in 2009. No, he was one of the most popular players on the planet. When McDonald’s decided they were going to re-do the famous Larry Bird vs. Michael Jordan McDonald’s commercial with LeBron James they could have chosen plenty of athletes to do it with. They chose Howard.

Of course, you don’t get that big on personality alone. While Howard was reaping the benefits of stardom off the court, on it he was changing it. From 2008-2012 he belonged among the elite of the elite. Not the elite big men in the league, but as one of the three best players, period. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard. That was the list. Write it in pen. Put it on the wall. They ran the NBA. Howard was a force of nature that, using his athleticism, changed how basketball is played today.

Following the Magic’s 2007 season, Orlando hired former Miami head coach Stan Van Gundy and signed Rashard Lewis to a huge contract. Due to an injury to starting power forward Tony Battie, the Magic did something that, at the time, sounded crazy. They moved Rashard Lewis from small forward to power forward. They started Hedo Turkoglu at the three and ran Howard as the lone “true” big man on the floor. Four out. One in. From 2008 until Howard left Orlando, the Magic led the NBA in three-point rate (the percentage of shot attempts that came from three-point range) each year, and unlike those around them though they won. A lot.

The Magic did this by building their entire system at the things Howard was best at. Howard emerged into the destructive force that many have forgotten about in his latter years. He won three straight Defensive Player of The Year Awards from 2009 to 2011. He finished second in MVP voting in 2011. He’d make the NBA Finals in 2009, and throughout this time Howard dominated in three areas.

He was of course a defensive monster. Howard was one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in the NBA. You couldn’t just pull him away from the paint and drive at the rim, because he was athletic enough to stick with a guard on a switch or cut off the lane, pivot, and recover to the roll man in time to bother a shot. Of course, his calling card was that he was one of the most feared shot blockers in the NBA, using his bounce and wingspan to get to just about anything around the rim.

On offense, Howard was unbelievable as a roll man. When you’re that big and athletic there’s really only one logical way to use you. The Magic had Howard set screens and then run at the rim where he would await a lob. It worked an awful lot of the time as defenses had no idea how to stop it besides hack Howard as hard as they physically could since few teams had anyone that could jump with prime Dwight.

A problem teams still battle with in the small-ball era is how to spread the floor and not get crushed on the boards. Howard’s ability to rebound the ball at a ridiculous rate was a key to Orlando, as they were top 5 in defensive rebounding each year during the Howard-Van Gundy era. While not a great offensive rebounding team as a whole, Howard himself pulled in close to four offensive boards per game as his teammates hoisted threes around him. He was the perfect big man to help bring about the three-point revolution.

There was also, of course, his oft-criticized post game. Though never a great post player, Howard was more effective than he was given credit for. He had three moves: A running hook, a drop step, and a jump hook. While dumping it into the post wasn’t the preferred way to use him, he wasn’t the completely inept post player everybody considered him to be. But because Howard didn’t play like Shaq or Hakeem, unfortunately, he received heavy criticism for not being the right kind of big man. “How can the NBA’s most dominant big man have no post game?” is a question that would get laughed at today, but in the late aughts the idea of the “true center” was still very much a thing.

This is a major part of what led to Howard’s eventual downfall. He’s always had a tremendous desire to be liked and also heard every bit of criticism that came his way, particularly from his predecessor, Shaquille O’Neal. Every chance Shaq got he would take a swipe at Howard, and while we’ve seen current and former players turned pundits get in spats at times, few have seemed to let it affect them as much as Dwight.

Those criticisms began eating at Howard. Soon, he started demanding the ball in the post more. He wanted to prove he was a true big man. Despite nearly winning MVP in 2011, and in many people’s eyes he should have, Howard wanted to change himself. The Magic were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in 2011, and 2012 began late due to a lockout. As soon as the lockout ended, Howard demanded a trade to the Nets so he could go play in Brooklyn.

What followed was one of the most drawn out, exhaustive trade demands in recent memory. Everything around Dwight and Orlando fell apart. The team made trades to appease him in an effort to convince him to stay. This involved bringing in players like Glen Davis, which, in a shocking twist, didn’t work out.

As the season went along and Howard became more disgruntled the Magic managed to continue winning games. Howard actually played quite well despite all the drama around him, but with the trade deadline quickly approaching the Magic gave him an ultimatum: either agree to opt in to the final year of his contract with Orlando or agree to trade at the deadline. On a plane ride back to Orlando, Howard decided to opt in.

Great! Relationship’s fixed. Nothing wrong from here on out, right? No random demands to fire Stan Van Gundy because you’re tired of him yelling all the time, right?

The video is still so awkward and cringeworthy to watch today, and if the public’s perception of Howard hadn’t already flipped from him being a beloved figure to a despised one, this sealed it for many. Dwight’s jokester personality suddenly became grating and the idea that he was being phony became widely accepted.

From then, everything spiraled. He suffered his first back injury, keeping him out of the playoffs and beginning the deterioration of his body. In the offseason, he demands another trade and is sent to the Lakers. After a horrible year, where he played through that same back injury and a torn labrum, he leaves Los Angeles for Houston. His three years in Houston end in a feud with James Harden that forces him to leave there as well, launching the future Hall of Famer on a journeyman’s path.

Howard is on his fifth team in five years. He’s been dealt for bad salary after bad salary as each team that seeks him as a reclamation project wants him out of their locker room after a year. It’s a sad story for a player that was once on top of the world. A first ballot Hall of Famer that many don’t want in there on the principal of how much they dislike him alone. Some people just don’t even remember how great he was because his peak was so short-lived, derailed by a back injury and a massive sea change in the NBA.

It’s ironic that the Magic started the three-point revolution around Howard, only for that exact style of play to ultimately pass him by. He’s seen as a relic from a bygone era, despite posting double-doubles in literally every season of his career save for his nine game stint in Washington last year (where he averaged 12.8 points and 9.2 boards). And yet, he was played off the floor in the playoffs in his one season in Atlanta, and handled it as well as you’d expect, which ultimately led to him being shipped out.

The Lakers now hope they can be the ones to make this work. They’ll hope Howard’s body can hold up and that he has finally, truly, learned his lesson about how to act in the locker room. For five years we’ve heard that change is coming, so few are holding their breath. Even the Lakers know it might not happen and have him on a non-guaranteed deal that allows them to cut bait by January. No one expects to ever see “Superman” Dwight ever again, but this may be his last chance to prove his on-court value can outweigh the off-court headaches.

What Howard was in Orlando, at his peak, was a truly great big man that helped spark a change in how the game is played. He was as elite an athlete as we’ve seen at the center position, and helped open doors at that position for athletes and the “unicorn” generation that aren’t the size of a traditional center. But whatever happens in his second stint in Los Angeles, let’s try not to forget what Howard once was: A player so great that he was on the same level as Kobe and LeBron who changed the NBA. There aren’t many guys left you can say that about anymore.