Superman, Looking for Work: The Strange Case of Dwight Howard in 2016

Dwight Howard has been the most dominant big man of his era, and yet somehow has never quite been taken seriously. He's a free agent in more ways than one.

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Jul 1 2016, 2:08pm

Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Which player saw his narrative change most during the NBA playoffs? Was it Stephen Curry, whose gospel of basketball redemption twisted and popped? Or LeBron James, whose Sisyphean boulder of expectations suddenly, matter-of-factly crested a seemingly insurmountable summit and bounced lightly down the other side? Maybe it was J.R. Smith,purpose-driven son, or Austin Rivers, neglected scion? Or was it, through nothing in particular he did on the court during his brief postseason visit, erstwhile superman and semi-prized free agent Dwight Howard?

After his Houston Rockets were bounced in the first round, Howard appeared as a guest panelist on TNT's Inside the NBA, where he revealed his vulnerable side in an ensemble of antacid tones. A cameo that in previous years might have featured an inspiring display of armpit flatulence instead turned into a 14-minute segment—the network blew right through a commercial break—in which Dwight's reputation, feelings, and impending free agency were publicly examined by the intermittently thoughtful, semi-sympathetic pair of Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley. Their questions weren't always great—what, exactly, is the right answer to "Why don't people like you?"—but they were ones that had occurred to every NBA fan at some point.

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Howard had long ago worn out his appeal as an overgrown teenager, but here he came off uncommonly graceful and intelligent, and even something like mature. He vented his frustration with double standards in the media—does he smile too much, or not enough?—and with his role in an offense that seldom got him the ball. Mostly, though, Howard laid bare the profound loneliness of the generational-talent seven-foot-tall basketball man. For a dude wearing a Superman lapel pin, the scene was uniquely human.

And now Howard is looking for work. The timing isn't great for him to sign his last big contract. He's coming off the least productive season of his career, on a sinus headache of a team to which he always seemed more of a distraction than a contributor. He turns 31 in December, and he has worn out his welcome on every team he has played for. If the TNT appearance showed anything, it's that he's still in the throes of transition from superstar to second banana, even if the role he was asked to play in Houston was insulting and poorly communicated. Whatever the case, he's about to receive a lot of money. Howard is still a great enough player that he can dramatically shift the balance of power in the NBA. All he has to do now is pick a team. It's not as easy as it sounds.

Howard hasn't quite fit with the Rockets. Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Howard has spent so much time on the inactive list or in the shadow of James Harden that it's easy to forget the impact he used to have on every game he played. A sui generis physical specimen never seen before at the center position, he played with such force that teams had to caution players not to get injured guarding him. In his prime, Howard owned the paint and haunted the perimeter, and he possessed the size, explosiveness, and coordination to dunk or rebound just about anything in the vicinity of the rim. The Orlando Magic team that surrounded him with four shooters is the most influential Finals loser of the past 20 years; for the many front offices that have tried to replicate their success playing four out, the hard part hasn't been finding shooters. There are a lot of those, relative to how many Dwight Howards there are in the league, or in the universe.

And yet Howard hasn't been anywhere near as rangy since he left Orlando. It's unclear how much of his decline is attributable to lingering back issues, how much is disinterest or a willful attempt to define an inconvenient role, and how much is just sand piling up in the bottom of his hourglass. But even if Howard is past his prime, he has plenty left in the tank. He's descending from such a ridiculous athletic peak that even at, say, 80 percent of what he once was, he'll still be able to dominate for a few more years, especially as teams embrace smaller lineups. A strongman in the middle never goes out of fashion in the NBA, and if Howard is reduced to a defense-first pick-and-roll role on some team—well, if he were to agree to it, he might be more valuable than he has been in years.

Look at Portland, or Milwaukee, or Boston—getting Howard probably lifts any one of them into home-court advantage in the first round. Even Golden State, the best regular-season team in NBA history, would be upgrading by swapping in Howard for Andrew Bogut. Do the Warriors need another guy who demands 25 shots a game more than a giant who can meet LeBron at the rim, over and over again?

The trouble with Howard is that all of his situations have started out as ideal fits on paper. A burgeoning of basketball was perfected around him in Orlando, and then he got his coach fired and demanded a trade. His superteam in Los Angeles crashed and burned, although in retrospect it seems more inevitable now than it did then. A binary star system with Harden turned into a black hole. You can explain each one—the Magic were stale, Kobe is impossible, Harden froze him out—but a pattern emerges regardless. Dwight Howard fits everywhere and nowhere at once. What he needs, always, is an out clause.

Howard fits everywhere and nowhere at once. Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The darkest irony surrounding the near-universal frustration with Howard is that he wants so desperately to please everyone. This was clear even in that Inside The NBA interview, when he fielded insulting questions in earnest; only bullies ask, "Why does no one like you?," and bullies aren't asking because they care about your answer. Pleasing everyone is hard enough when being larger than life makes you physically unrelatable; it's even harder when your entire appeal comes from your immense destructive power and a joke index from Captain Underpants. The only forum where both of those play is the slam dunk contest, and Howard can't do those anymore. It's taken him this long to outgrow it, and there's the sense he's still working on it.

We already knew that Howard checks out when he doesn't get the ball; copping to it on TNT wasn't a massive revelation. What changed people's perceptions about him that night was, above all else, that he could stay in character as an adult for 14 straight minutes. Soon, a general manager will bet that he can keep that up for three or four years.

Smith said that Howard's choice in free agency would change his life forever, but the stakes aren't any higher now than they were in 2012 or 2013. In fact, a lot has been removed from the equation; his place among the all-time greats, for example, is mostly a settled matter (it's at the kids' table). He is, however, running out of time, which makes this a point of no return for his career. Getting a championship out of the bargain seems unlikely; he's no longer good enough to win one even as a second option, and he's too expensive and probably too stubborn to be someone's last piece. The only way he will redeem his narrative, then, is by finding a home and proving he can stay there. That's easier said than done, especially for Howard. It will look and feel like growing up. After all this, only he knows if he's ready.

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