TORONTO -- Dwight Howard's career can be described as many things. Early in his career in Orlando, he was dominant, leading the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals and considered by many to be the second-best player in the league behind LeBron James. At the height of his career, Howard was a frightening two-way player and a true game-changer. Those days are behind him now, but in decline, he's also drawn plenty of criticism as a malcontent in each of his stops after pushing for a trade out of Orlando and eventually getting his wish in the summer of 2012.
Howard's one-year partnership with Kobe Bryant went awry and ended with a four-game sweep against the Spurs in the first round. He followed it up with a reprieve in Houston, where he and James Harden were supposed to be a formidable one-two combo. For a while they were, culminating in a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2015, but there was plenty of friction between the two stars by the end of Howard's three-year run with the Rockets. Howard wanted more touches. He felt like he wasn't involved in the team's offense that revolved around Harden. Their relationship was described as "cordially bad."
Last season, Howard joined the Hawks. He averaged 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds, but the team won 43 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In the offseason, Howard was traded to the Hornets. When the trade happened, several Hawks players reportedly screamed in jubilation, further cementing Howard's reputation as a player whose star has fallen to the point where former teammates celebrate his departure.
On Wednesday before morning shootaround in Toronto, Howard talked about his pet snakes, which he has been collecting since he was old enough to take care of them (Howard owns a snake tank in his home in Houston, worth a reported $70,000). "They're fun animals," Howard said. "A lot of people look at them as being mean, and how they'll eat you, but they're really sweet animals."
You could probably draw parallels from that description to Howard's career. He's been categorized as a lot of things: a curmudgeon on the floor when he's not getting enough touches, a playful jester off the court who doesn't take the game seriously enough. On that last point, teammate Marvin Williams disagrees.
"You don't accomplish what he's accomplished in 14 years of his career and not take it seriously," Williams said. "You don't just wake up and become a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, lead the league in rebounding five times and make the All-Star team eight times."
Last week, Howard passed Patrick Ewing for 10th place on the NBA's all-time defensive rebounding list. On Wednesday, he passed Horace Grant for 13th place on the all-time offensive rebounding list. With a Hall-of-Fame resume, Howard doesn't feel like there's any extra motivation to prove anyone wrong in Charlotte this season.
"I'm not in this to prove anything to anybody," Howard said on Wednesday prior to morning shootaround in Toronto. "People always try to prove their worth to somebody else, and that's just the wrong way to go about life. That's the wrong way to go about this sport."
Howard has reunited with head coach Steve Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant for six seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles. The two had many conversations this summer, but the message was the same. "He just wanted me to play basketball and enjoy the game again," Howard said. Despite leading the league in post-up possessions per game in each of the past three seasons, Howard admits he has felt underutilized since his Orlando days. Clifford is hoping to rectify that this season.
"So much of being happy is having success on the court," Clifford said. "He has a bigger role here. I think that's what he was looking for."
Howard's points per possession in the low post have been in decline, and his preference for playing with his back to the basket throughout his career has put him on the top of the list of players who theoretically would be the perfect roll man in the pick-and-roll. But it has never translated into actual results because of his aversion to it. The Hornets acquired Howard at a low cost, and it's very much a marriage of convenience.
Despite ranking 20th among centers in defensive real plus-minus this season, Howard is still a presence on the defensive end. Two seasons ago, the Hornets won 48 games and made the playoffs with a top-10 defense. They regressed to 14th on defense last season and won just 36 games. So far this season, the Hornets are 15th in defensive efficiency. Clifford understands his team -- which is 8-12 through 20 games -- is still evolving and wants to see how it can perform defensively with an extended stretch of full health.
A frontcourt of Howard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum provides Clifford with the flexibility and talent to build a top-10 defense. But the trio have spent only seven games (and 138 minutes in total) on the floor together this season after Batum missed the first 12 games with a torn elbow ligament and Kidd-Gilchrist took an excused absence from the team to deal with the death of his grandmother.
On the offensive end, Kemba Walker -- who is averaging 22.3 points this season -- is the engine who makes the Hornets go. The Hornets want to be a dynamic and flexible offense. Clifford would like to see post-ups for Howard, but also pick-and-rolls initiated by Walker and Batum. Jeremy Lamb has provided a boost off the bench. "You need to have different components on offense," Clifford said.
While Howard is no longer a player you build a team around, he is still an effective two-way player. As the league continues to downsize, Howard realizes his contributions on the court might get overlooked. "I don't think [the center position] is appreciated as much," Howard said. "It's been devalued." Today, centers like Howard have to step out on the perimeter more and guard players like Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns.
"You could say the center position is different than it used to be and much more versatile," Clifford said. "But teams that play well [still need] a center." Clifford points to Andre Drummond, a more traditional center, who had 26 points and 22 rebounds in a win over Boston on Monday. The Pistons are 14-6, with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference
The Hornets, who are 8-12, are trying to get there. In the East, a .500 record will probably keep teams in contention for a playoff spot until the final week of the regular season. After the past several seasons, Howard isn't interested in hearing all of the criticism from the outside anymore.
"That's not under my control," Howard said. "The only thing I do know is my worth to this team. My teammates know how I am as a player and as a person. You can't really control what things are being said, but you can control how you are with your teammates and on the floor."