By Jeb Lund
Dwight Howard has lived his basketball life like a man determined to wind up at the intersection of two folk sayings. Every year, he has carelessly wished for things until, finally, he's gotten them. And he lives in interesting times. At no point has he evinced the slightest awareness of both of these folk expressions as curses -- or much of anything else.
Even though he made the right decision in going to Houston, that story emerged in the least inspiring and most Howard-esque way possible. On Friday, one USA Today-affiliated reporter broke the news that he'd signed with the Rockets, while another USA Today-affiliated reporter claimed that Howard's agent had said that the decision was still down to two teams. In the meantime, Howard had done the equivalent of approaching other bidding teams with a rose and telling them, in an intimate setting, that, even though they had great personalities, he would not be choosing them as the Basketballette this season.
Howard's affinity for releasing significant news on Twitter rather than through an agent at an official press conference only served to offer the same quasi-legitimacy to sportswriter rumors and Twitter trends as it did to earnest disclosures from his camp. Darren Rovell took a break from using a pricing gun on every object in existence to watch whether Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant were unfollowing, following, then unfollowing Howard on Twitter. Rovell was minutes away from breaking the total cost of all the tulle and bunting at the Lakers' homecoming dance (reported value: like, 1.2 buttloads) when Twitter erupted with the story that Howard had announced he would go to the Rockets unless the Lakers sweetened an offer to get him to stay.
At a bar on Friday night, I could watch as sports fans who may have just sat down and glanced up at the tube got confused, squinting at the ESPN crawl while reading/misreading it, cheering that Howard was a Laker, no a Rocket, no a Laker, no a Rocket -- Wabbit Season, Duck Season, Wabbit Season, Duck Season -- before throwing their hands up or yelling, "Come on!" The only universal response was, essentially, "Dwight Howard is an insufferable jackass, unless he signs with my team, I guess."
What the conflicting reports sounded like, more than anything, was a hostage situation, which, in the confused world of Dwight Howard, featured him standing with a gun to his temple and saying, "Hand over the money, or your team's future gets it." The characterization would seem unfair if it weren't part of pattern behavior. Aside from getting rung up for a historically high number of technicals, Howard's legacy for the past few seasons is that of an ultimatum delivery device with all outcomes targeted to "sub-optimal."
First, Howard campaigned to improve the Orlando Magic by getting coach Stan Van Gundy replaced, while denying that he was making the effort. Improving a team via a backstage ouster of its nominal leader might work if the man is a blinkered martinet, but Van Gundy had a strong record of getting teams to the postseason and looked about as nasty and unlovable as an 8-bit digital Italian plumber. Leaving aside questions about how a team can "come together" and improve when one player decides he can also make hiring and firing decisions, Howard almost immediately undermined whatever good intentions he might have displayed by demanding a trade. Having fixed the team's woes, he evidently then decided that its problems were unsolvable, which was both logically inconsistent and instant PR death.
While it's tough to blame Howard for failing to get along with Kobe Bryant, a man who could seemingly feud with even the world's most cringingly servile butler, he nevertheless began agitating for the ouster of coach Mike Brown at a world-record clip. Howard not only campaigned to re-hire Phil Jackson, but explained it recently as he hit the jerk athlete trifecta of questionable behavior, narcissism and referring to himself in the third person:
Well, I asked to have him as my coach earlier in the year. The best decision for me was to do what's best for Dwight. I think this is the best thing for me. This wasn't a decision about anybody else. I didn't have anybody pushing me to do anything. This is what Dwight wanted.
Jackson, to his credit, replied by accurately describing Howard's LA tenure and hoping that he would be a good fit with the Astros.
On paper, Howard's move to Houston is a good fit. The Lakers can cling to team mystique and the hope that Kobe et al can hold on, in decent condition, for one more year, but they need to start focusing on rebuilding sooner rather than later. In Houston, Howard's paired with All-Star shooting guard James Harden, has a coach with a legendary post game and can consult with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who could be willing to work with the center one-on-one to improve his game.
Improvement -- not coaching, not a higher Klout score, not becoming a trending topic -- may prove Howard's toughest challenge. Like a naturally gifted high school honors student who gets straight A's just for showing up, Howard has focused on everything else -- his coaches, his teams, his brand -- while assuming that he can just win by being on the team. (He also seems to think that just being Dwight Howard should translate into a pop-cultural phenomenon, which explains another aspect of fans' ambivalence, if not hostility.)
But, like that complacent ace student who gets to college and starts flunking classes because he doesn't study, Howard's sheer physical talent seems to have kept him from realizing that the NBA is stuffed with people who used to be able to dominate games just by making an appearance. The difference between NBA stars and NBA champions is the difference between people with ungodly talent and people with ungodly talent and work ethic.
And it's this last point that's most in doubt. The Rockets have a head coach in Kevin McHale who may be ideally suited to improving Howard's post game. Olajuwon stands in the wings ready to help where he can, too. And the front office seems committed to finding Harden and Howard their third man to compete with San Antonio and Miami's Big Threes when the Rockets reach the postseason. Howard essentially finds himself without excuses.
Dwight Howard has finally been given everything he's claimed he wanted. His problem now may be that he has no more problems.
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