Can Dwight Howard salvage his image in Houston? It's a complex question—just as his image troubles have been complex, thus far—and one that has a lot to do with factors beyond his control.
Howard came into the league with the potential for stardom. He achieved it, of course, by playing terrific basketball.
But a large part of his fame is also due to his personality—which has its fair share of detractors.
Howard has been an excessively goofy person for an NBA superstar. So much so that some question his true motives: Is he built to win or merely to extend his own fame?
He didn't help his cause when he proclaimed himself “Superman” and donned an actual cape in the slam dunk contest—this is, perhaps, the epitome of Howard’s supposed self-interested narcissism.
But that’s not even the tip of the iceberg as far as many of his haters are concerned.
Let’s jump into the peak of Howard’s good will with the public and see where everything went from shaky to terrible for his image.
With the Magic
In 2009, things looked great for Howard. He had his skeptics, but they were left with little to say when his Orlando Magic beat LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to win the Eastern Conference Championship with no other superstars on the roster.
Howard was also beginning his streak of three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards—a feat never previously accomplished.
The 2009-10 Magic did not return to the finals, though, losing a hard-fought battle to the Boston Celtics in the second round. Thankfully for Howard, few people were putting the load of the loss on his massive shoulders, as it was largely understood that he was without the talent necessary to defeat a healthy Boston.
The 2010-11 season saw the Magic win 52 games but lose the division for the first time since 2006. Dwight posted career highs in scoring and rebounds (and also took home DPOY awards, again), but he also led the league in technical fouls; not a good look.
The Magic then went on to lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Atlanta Hawks.
Howard also made it be known that he was dissatisfied with things in Orlando. He felt that not enough was being done to build a title contender.
The damage had already been done; the fanbase, burned once by Shaq, became weary of Howard’s fleeting commitment. Many became ambivalent about the direction of the franchise.
As a franchise era seemed inevitably at its close, rumors of all kinds began to swirl around about Howard. In a nutshell: He wanted to leave.
Common belief was that he would’ve been gone from the team sooner had that season’s All-Star Game not been set in Orlando. His presence as an enemy player on what was long conceived of as a celebratory weekend would have been a public relations black eye for both Howard and the franchise.
The rumors got worse following the All-Star break and culminated in one of the most bizarre locker room scenes in recent NBA history. Reports that Howard was pressing for Van Gundy’s dismissal resulted in this altercation:
Howard’s attempt to make levity out of the tension of this media disaster didn’t convince anyone and only came across as juvenile. It didn’t help when Van Gundy actually was fired after another quick playoff exit, and Howard demanded a trade yet again, despite amending his contract to stay an extra year in Orlando. Howard’s PR outlook only got dimmer from here.
Season with the Lakers
Howard sustained a torn labrum (a shoulder injury) toward the end of his final season in Orlando and came into the 2012-13 season with the Lakers a bit banged up. Perhaps it was unfair that Howard’s injury was framed by many as an excuse not to take the floor in Orlando—read: It was very, very unfair—but that didn’t seem to matter.
Once the theory got out, the public was provided with a whole new reason to question his legitimacy as a true NBA superstar—and the public ran with it. Such is PR.
The Lakers media machine and fanbase are as tough as any in sports, and they clearly took their tolls on Howard. It’s possible that playing with Kobe Bryant on a team that has long taken his lead is not for everyone. Bryant’s narcissism has, after all, enraged both Shaq and Phil Jackson out of L.A. before.
It’s not much of a mystery as to why someone like Howard is regularly lambasted by the press, while Bryant is mostly revered. Both players are clearly high-maintenance personalities, but one of them is also a five-time champion with dozens of iconic performances under his belt.
This, above all, is the lesson Howard should be learning through all of his career’s media folly: Winning solves everything, in the eyes of the public. Had the Lakers been successful last season—they were, instead, incredibly mediocre—their mess of personalities would not have been the media’s focus on the team.
Winning would have been the antidote to save Mike Brown's coaching job and make Mike D'Antoni look like less of a fool. Winning would have shut everyone up about whether Howard and Bryant hated each other, Steve Nash's decline and Pau Gasol's marginalized role.
But the Lakers didn't win, so all of those questions and storylines took the limelight. In Lakerland, they're always going to have a story, so you better win and make sure that the story is your excellence.
In deciding to sign with the Houston Rockets, it seems that Howard did learn to value winning again. Or he learned, at least, to win again to distract the NBA world from questioning him so much as a human. And to go somewhere where they're less eager to tear you down.
Future with the Rockets
Whether Howard is able to rehabilitate his image in Houston depends on not just his behavior, but also the team’s.
The Rockets’ pursuit of Howard was appropriately flattering, as the team promised him his place in a long line of franchise greats at the center position. For the sake of Howard’s image, one hopes they continue such flattery.
Howard, like Bryant, is a man who needs to be adored. Let’s not pretend otherwise. The peak of his career was when Van Gundy designed a two-way system around his talents in a city that loved him for filling Shaq’s shoes.
Since Howard has met more rough and critical times, he has visibly retreated not only as a personality but, more importantly, as a player too.
Although he was certainly playing hurt for much of last season, it was clear that Howard's lackluster play (by his standards, anyway—he did still lead the league in rebounding) was also a result of playing for a team that didn’t prioritize his skill set as highly as he would have liked.
Howard was confused about how important he was—and, like it or not, this effects the way he plays.
As such, the challenge of managing Howard’s psyche poses one of the larger challenges of coach Kevin McHale’s job in the upcoming season. McHale has another superstar in James Harden and another formidable big man in Omer Asik.
The question is: can it be done? Can Howard be properly humbled, so to be happy as something less than the main man? It may require a Phil-Jackson-level of grace for McHale to make this so.
Howard's extended happiness in Orlando had so much to do with his centrality in their system: everything worked around him. And there were no stars even close to his level of fame, or on-court value.
James Harden, much to the contrary, is swiftly becoming one of the league's very favorite players. Take this Foot Lock commercial Harden recently starred in, a huge success among fans:
Harden's comic timing is terrific. One might even say that it's funnier than anything we've seen Dwight do off of the court (I might be one of them). This could seem like a silly thing to be worried about, but it's hard to tell what does and doesn't matter, in the pursuit of keeping D12 satisfied. It's not a stretch to suggest that the team arrange some sort of collaborative comical media stunt for the two, so that Howard feels he hasn't lost a step in his extra-basketball affairs. Such a showing could be essential to keeping Dwight's spirits high, for the court.
What needs to happen on the court is of course a different story. How McHale balances Dwight's and Harden's touches has a lot to do with how easily they're winning games. The more victories they have in hand early in the game-clock, the more generous the coach can distribute the ball to whichever player he needs to.
But if the Rockets are struggling, and doing what they have to in order to win, we can expect to see the ball in James Harden's hands a lot of the time. Howard will be asked, above all, to dominate defensively, in must-win contests. Dwight was clearly upset when a similar dynamic existed between him and Kobe, in L.A. It's possible that he would rankle, again, with the Rockets.
A possible approach this tension could be further mythologizing, on the part of the franchise. Howard can be highlighted as similar to Yao Ming, who often watched Tracy McGrady take over games, for the greater good. Or, McHale can liken the center to his very self, and remind Howard of all the times he had to step aside and watch Larry Bird clean house for the Celtics.
The key being the perception of Howard's importance. Mike D'Antoni's approach to the fragile superstar was tactless, and so was Kobe's—both were happy to throw him under the bus of the Lakers media machine, multiple times throughout the season. Howard could very well be happy with a defense-first role, deferring to Harden on offense, so long as the team promotes a positive image of his worth, consistently.
Although Howard’s non-basketball antics often bring him his attention, it’s clear that when things are going well on the court, he’s able to manage enough goodwill not to be universally hated.
If Houston is able to realize the connection between making Howard happy and making him play well—and it seems they do—it will be the linchpin to not only a great team, but also the revival of Howard’s image.