Sep 29, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) poses for a photo during media day at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Dwight Howard began to see the flak flying two seasons ago after heading west to become a Los Angeles Lakers. Coming off a dominant tenure in Orlando that dated to his rookie season, Howard had won three Defensive Player of the Year awards while carrying a heavily under dogged Orlando Magic team to the franchise’s second Eastern Conference Championship in history.
D12 suffered a herniated disc in his back in his final season in Orlando, causing him to sit out the postseason, and after the Magic were quickly eliminated by the Indiana Pacers, Howard headed west to L.A.
Dwight did not look the same his entire time in purple and gold, and Howard told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports that he should have waited longer to come back.
Howard added, “I don’t regret playing right away. I (just) wish the information could’ve come across to the world about how hurt I really was, how serious the back injury was, but it never really did.
Stan Van Gundy began to comment that Howard had fallen off since the time he coached him, telling Ben Bloch of the L.A. Times in 2012, “I don’t think he looks quite as explosive or as quick as he has been in the past…he has not totally looked like himself to me.” SVG was familiar with Dwight from Day 1, so these observations were hardly dismissed by anyone.
Howard continued to hobble in L.A., just to see himself become the main focus in the postseason effort with the team bereft of its superstar Kobe Bryant.
After posting 20 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks in Game 1, it seemed the Lakers may be able to give the San Antonio Spurs a series. The Lakers still lost Game 1 by 12 points, but things never got any better. Howard’s best game came in Game 3, as he scored 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting with 11 boards and two blocks. Despite his strong efforts, the Lakers fell apart in Games 3 and 4 in San Antonio and were swept in the series.
No. 12 had been miserable all season and he and Kobe Bryant never did seem to gel. The Lakers were rarely fully healthy, and much as it was in Orlando, it was clear that Howard was likely on his way to another NBA franchise.
The Houston Rockets had pursued Howard since the time he was in Orlando, but new GM Rob Hennigan chose to make a three-team trade that saw his stint in L.A. occur. Morey now capitalized on his chance to reel Howard in.
Still, Howard considers himself fortunate that things didn’t get worse, telling Y! Sports, “The good thing about it, I didn’t develop any other major injuries. The torn labrum (shoulder) eventually healed itself. But coming back early from the back (injury), I believed it helped me out in the long run. It made me really develop thicker skin..”
That’s just it, though. Prior to L.A., Howard didn’t need thick skin. He was beloved in Central Florida and all throughout the NBA for his smile, charisma, talent and sheer excitement. And that all shattered in the bright lights of Los Angeles. The Howard that had won hearts in dunk contests and led the league in boards by massive margins had reduced himself to a sulking, limping shadow of the player he was in pinstripes.
Feb 20, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) on the bench during the second quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Howard said more than anything he “was always taught to never show weakness, never (to) show fear. (To) Always put a smile on your face.” And he did. In Orlando as the focal point of a strong team featuring several good performers in their respective primes, Howard was at his best. While he carried the biggest load offensively in Orlando, it was an inside-outside offense that maximized what Dwight brings to a team. That certainly wasn’t the case in L.A., and it hasn’t entirely been the case yet here in Houston.
Newcomer Trevor Ariza commented to Y! that Howard looks “more athletic” now than ever before. Trevor said “He’s always been big and strong, but he seems (even) stronger to me, looks like he is jumping higher than he did.”
Basketball purists are always quick to refer to the “eye test.” And Howard is passing it with flying colors if a tested veteran like Ariza is seeing a revitalized, dominant Dwight.
If impressing the Rockets new 3-man isn’t enough, then maybe some words from the “Hoops Whisperer” Hakeem Olajuwon, will suffice.
Dream told Y! that “he’s a different animal this year. His physique, his spirit coming together with his talent and skills and health; he has an aura about him here. It’s like he has gotten his youth back.”
Hakeem has a way with words, most especially so for a Nigerian native, and it was just that, Dwight’s “aura” that has been most noticeably absent since the time he was at the apex of his NBA career. And Dwight certainly should be able to reclaim his youth as he has, for he is only 28 years old at this point in his NBA career.
Howard is theoretically just entering his prime as an NBA player, but after two seasons that didn’t match up with his previous production, many wondered if he would ever take the steps back to what he was before. Howard knows it is his toughness now that will make the difference if the Rockets are to emerge as true contenders in the Western Conference.
While Dwight’s quick to label it as a fault, the ability to always grin and bear it is what separates many champions from the rest of the pack.
Kobe Bryant tried to push his Achilles’ tendon back into place to stay in a game. Michael Jordan played with a flu that would have rendered mortals bound to a bed while vomiting gatorade and bottles of Thera-Flu.
Howard may not have taken the world by storm with any one single act like those, but his choice to not openly blame his decline on injuries may have allowed the world to forget he is still young. While back injuries can prove tricky, Howard seems to be one who has overcome the odds to get his body back to top-flight conditioning.
A friend commented a couple days ago about Howard’s fantasy prospects by beginning “Well, he is 30 now..”
But those statements may begin to disappear as the league takes notice that Howard is stronger and better than ever, and it was his resolute demeanor that allowed this rehabilitation to take place over the last two seasons. He’s not 30, but maybe by the time he is Howard’s wearing a ring or two.