About four years ago, I nicknamed Dwight Howard "the human Burger King." He became the best center in basketball kind of by default, sort of like how you’d only go to Burger King if there’s no Wendy’s, Five Guys, White Castle or Sonic around. You’d watch him put up a workman-like 24-12 just like you’d eat a Whopper: satisfying, does its job, but not overly impressive save for the occasional super athletic block (which, in BK world, is the first month or two after they released chicken fries).
You expect to be blown away by Howard, but you never are. Eventually you just kind of accept him as a part of NBA life, one you’ll never fully enjoy, but he still serves a purpose as the league’s de facto top center.
But here’s the thing: you’d want to own stock in Burger King. Burger King is everywhere, it makes money, and even if it gets absolutely no one excited and really isn’t as good as the great fast food restaurants of old or even as their commercials suggest, you’re going to make money if you own a Burger King.
Dwight Howard is, for basketball fans anyway, the most frustrating star athlete to watch in all of sports. It’s agonizing. He was gifted with a body that might be the greatest for a center in NBA history: not quite as bulky and strong as young Shaq’s, but more agile and shifty. He didn’t put on the fat that Shaq did, either, and for six or seven years, he was easily the league’s best athlete not named LeBron.
He has no low-post game to speak of besides a hideous jump hook from the right block that he wouldn’t dare attempt from further than six or seven feet. He can’t change a game with his height and bulk like Roy Hibbert can. He can’t affect the flow of the offense with passing like the Gasols, or even swing the momentum with energy and hustle like Joakim Noah.
He’s not the same defender anymore, either. His defensive rating hit triple digits for the first time since his second year in the league, and he’s not the pure athletic specimen that he used to be in that he’s not going to leap across the floor and swat a shot into the third row as frequently. He rarely takes jumpers and when he does they almost never go in, and his free throw shooting is so bad that he has to miss minutes at the end games.
Even at his best he was a dubious choice for best center in the league. That title comes with certain expectations. Remember, his predecessors were Shaq, Hakeem, Moses, Kareem, Wilt and Russell. He’s never been anywhere near a single one of those guys.
Combine all of that with his personality and teams have plenty of reason to say “why the hell should we give Dwight Howard a third of our cap?” He’s an immature prima donna who wants to be the man on his own team yet can’t handle the responsibilities that come with it. He got one of the best coaches in basketball (Stan Van Gundy) fired, routinely threw his teammates under the bus, and is a constant threat to demand a trade or pout through two or three weeks of mediocre games.
All of that being said…
There isn’t a team in basketball that wouldn’t give the max for Dwight Howard right now. Despite everything I said, he still put up 17-12 last year in a completely toxic situation. Dwight Howard might not be a 7-foot galloping gazelle who can jump like a kangaroo anymore, but he’s still one of the 10 most valuable players in basketball when his head’s in the game.
Remember, he was supposed to sit out for the first month or two of the season and he played on opening night. For all we know, he isn’t fully recovered from the back injury that destroyed his 2012 season because he never got the chance to heal, not because he can’t.
Also remember, the Lakers don’t exactly have Phoenix’s training staff. They’ve been pretty hit or miss over the past few years. Andrew Bynum played exactly one full, meaningful season for them; Pau Gasol missed half of the year; and Steve Nash missed even more with an injury that I still haven’t seen definitively identified. Is it fair to say Gary Vitti (one of the most highly regarded trainers in the league) has lost a step after 29 years in the league? I say it is.
He’s also never played with a point guard that averaged more than 6 assists per game. Look at it, that’s Jameer Nelson’s high with Dwight. He’s also never had a 20-point scorer, and the only reason Hedo Turkoglu or Rashard Lewis ever came close was because Howard forced defenses to pack the paint so aggressively that they got several open threes per game.
Dwight Howard might not be the same athlete he used to be, but we’ve also never seen him fully unleashed on the right team, either. Remember, Moses didn’t win a title until he paired up with an aging Julius Erving and Andrew Toney in Philly. Shaq didn’t max out until 2000, Kobe’s first All-Star year (I refuse to acknowledge ’98; he was voted in by the fans, and he wasn’t even a starter for the Lakers). Kareem peaked early on playing next to a past-his-prime Oscar Robertson, took a slight dip when he retired, forced a trade to LA, and didn’t start winning titles again until Magic arrived.
I’m 99% sure we haven’t seen Howard’s most meaningful NBA moments yet. I don’t know where they’re coming from, I don’t know what team they’ll happen for, but I’m almost positive we haven’t heard the last of him. I don’t care how agonizing his wasted talent has been so far, nor does it bother me that he’s boring to watch and really is the human Burger King. Somewhere down the line, Dwight Howard is going to do something memorable.
And really, his best shot for that to happen is with the Rockets. James Harden is both the perfect player (a willing passer, an elite scorer without monopolizing the ball) and personality (congenial and deferential nearly to a fault) to pair with Howard. He’s good enough and smart enough to take over games down the stretch when Howard can’t but the type of person who will give him the credit anyway.
They’d have to deal Omer Asik for a power forward who can shoot (not as hard as you’d think, Asik would command eight figures on the open market), and they might have to deal Jeremy Lin and/or Patrick Beverley down the line for a point guard better suited to Howard (a passer who can stretch the defense with threes. Think a younger, cheaper version of Steve Nash), but on paper the Rockets make perfect sense.
So, why am I convinced Howard is staying in LA? Because signing with the Lakers is like going to prom with the prettiest girl in school. Even if you hate her, even if you’d rather take the girl next door, you’re awfully tempted by the status and popularity that comes with taking the head cheerleader. Your buddies (in Howard’s case, Dan Fegan and his handlers at Adidas) push you towards her because of how cool it would be to say you snagged the hottest girl on the food chain. Even if you really like the alternative, it’s just really damn hard to say no to the girl who has everything. Also, the sex would be great and you know it.
What’s NBA sex? Winning titles. Would you rather put your future in the hands of a team that has two, or a team that has 16? Remember, other free agents want to go to prom with the head cheerleader, too. Nobody had a clue how the Lakers were going to rebuild after Magic retired. They stole Shaq and picked Kobe in the same summer. Nobody knew how they’d give Kareem a sidekick. They lucked into Magic. Seven of the best 15 players in NBA history were Lakers, and that’s not a trend that’s dying any time soon.
Howard isn’t Chris Paul. I don’t think he’s emotionally secure or principled enough to stick to his guns and say “screw you Lakers, I’m headed to Houston,” knowing that he’s giving up a 60-year tradition of winning, the second biggest market in the league, an outside shot at playing with LeBron in a year, and a chance to go down in history as one of the great Laker big men of all time.
I don’t care if he says he wants to make his own legacy, and I don’t care if he hated his one year in LA: I don’t think Howard is capable of turning down the Lakers.
Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers, five years, $118 million (max)
By: Sam Quinn