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The Resurrection of Dwight Howard

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Dwight Howard once dominated the NBA, and in a few cases, at the expense of the Hornets. Now, with his prime years behind him, the Hornets hope Howard can revitalize at least some of that dominance with them.

Dwight Howard Autograph Session in Seoul Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

A few months ago I found myself perplexed by an ad plastered on the side of a passing city bus. The length of it featured an enormous set of seemingly haunted eyeballs, across which in bold font were the words: “Tom Cruise The Mummy June 9th.” Now, Best case scenario, this was a new band with one of those fun, nonsensical “blank the blank” names: Run the Jewels. Mott the Hoople. Cage the Elephant. Tom Cruise the Mummy. Worst case scenario, it was a new movie.

But that couldn't be right? I mean, there was already a movie called The Mummy. Actually, there were already several movies called The Mummy. In fact, between the years of 1999-2012, approximately 14 percent of ALL movies released were called some variation of “The Mummy” and featured Brendan Fraser running around on sand dunes, being a goober, recklessly popping open sarcophagi and unleashing the undead, poorly preserved body of some accursed Egyptian Demigod.

There was The Mummy. Then the Mummy returned in The Mummy Returns. Then there was a video game. Then another video game. Then a Mummy animated series. Then a prequel (that did not feature a mummy) called The Scorpion King (neither a scorpion or a king) played by a professional wrestler (not previously known as an actor) named The Rock, who may or may not end up being our next president. There was a Mummy film set in China (come on), three separate Universal Studios theme rides, and a sequel to the Scorpion King— The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior — which despite its quite deliberately sequential title was actually a prequel to that prequel.

The reason they kept making these films is because they were successful. They made money. Hollywood churned them out year after year, and we all just assumed that these movies must’ve been pretty good. But at some point we got Mummy-fatigued. We decided that not only were we tired of the Mummy, but that the Mummy was kind of super annoying. Nobody wanted to watch another Mummy movie. We’d been burned too many times, and yet The Mummy is back to potentially burn us again.

Along the same lines, Tom Cruise is a superstar in name only nowadays; his leading man charisma fastball has all but disappeared. He can no longer be the centerpiece of your summer blockbuster film franchise. And that more or less, is where we are at with Dwight Howard. Dwight Howard the Hornet. Tom Cruise the Mummy.

Not too long ago, the phrase “Dwight Howard traded” would have dominated every show/podcast/timeline, but with A-list talents like Chris Paul, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and (technically) Phil Jackson on the move, it made sense that a fading superstar like Dwight would get pushed to the back pages. That’s part of it. But the main reason no one is talking about Dwight Howard is because nobody wants to.

When you simply google his name one of the top results on the first page is a rather unambiguously titled article, “There Is Nothing Fun About Watching Dwight Howard Play Basketball”. If this is true (yes), then it stands to reason that there is even MORE nothing fun about writing about Dwight Howard play basketball. This puts me in a bit of a pickle, as it is the very thing I am doing in this exact moment. But I don’t have the luxury of avoiding him anymore. Dwight Howard plays for the Charlotte Hornets. He is our reality now.

The Curse of the Big Hornet

On more than one occasion last season I joked that the Hornet’s center position was cursed; hastily constructed atop an ancient Indian burial ground by a front office willfully ignorant of the consequences. Charlotte trotted out a total of eight different guys at center over the course of the 2016-17 season, and we lost a lot of good men out there. I watched in ambivalence as one after another fell to all manner of mishap: injury, trade, D-League assignment, plague, famine, etc.

This was unusually bad year for Hornet’s big men, but just go back through the rosters over the years and you’ll notice the center position has always been doomed with this team.

There’s a particular irony to Howard winding up in Charlotte, of all places. Oh, you’ve hated Dwight since his last year with the Magic? That’s cute, I’ve been hating him since his first. Dwight’s arrival to the NBA coincided with that of the Charlotte Bobcats. We were excited just to have a team again, and feeling hopeful that everything would be different this time. But quickly the Hornets found themselves in an eerily familiar scenario, with the second overall pick behind the Orlando Magic in a draft featuring an era-defining big man. What are the odds of that happening twice??

Pretty good it turns out, because it actually happened for a third time with the Anthony Davis draft. Shaq, Dwight, Anthony Davis. If you consider Tim Duncan a power forward, those are the three best centers of the last 25 years. That’s the entire list. And those drafts were the three times the Hornets have had the second overall pick. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Missing out on Shaq meant settling for an Alonzo Mourning consolation prize (more on him later). You can live with that one. Missing out on straight out of high school Dwight Howard meant settling for rising college senior Emeka Okafor. How big was the disparity between these two? More than one analyst gave Okafor a player comparison of Buck Williams (Kids! PLEASE. CALM. DOWN. There are enough jersey’s for everyone!!!) Howard’s comparison was something like “David Robinson in an Iron Man suit.”

This sounds crazy now, but at the time there was actually some debate over who should go number one. I’ll have to paraphrase, but I vividly remember one expert putting: “Dwight has superstar potential, but there’s risk. Okafor is the safe bet. Absolute worst case scenario, he be a solid starter on your team for the next ten years.” This was definitely NOT the worst case scenario. Ten years later, Okafor was no longer playing professional basketball.

Dwight Was Never Good and Has Always Been Overrated. Don't Look That Up.

I watched as Dwight’s career unfolded exactly as the prophecy foretold. Perennial All-Star. Multiple First Team All-NBA’s, Defensive Player of the Year’s, legitimate MVP candidate. He dunked everything. He rebounded everything. He blocked everything. He didn't just protect the paint, he shrouded it in perpetual darkness. A slashing guard seeing a clear path to the rim would be about to drop a buttery smooth finger roll through the nylon, and just then a great shadow would fall over him as Howard smote it with retribution.

Howard wasn't just delivering on his lofty potential, he was exceeding it. This hit an apex in 2009 when just-hitting-his-prime Dwight led the Magic to the NBA Finals in a playoff run that is almost harder to believe looking back now than when it happened. Orlando took down the Garnett/Pierce/Allen/Rondo defending champion Boston Celtics in a game seven and then took out newly minted, first-time MVP Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to advance to the NBA Finals.

I took all of Dwight’s accomplishments with a grain of salt. Needless to say, I was salty as hell. The man simply would not stop accomplishin’. I refused to recognize him as the elite talent that he obviously was. I was never able to appreciate how good peak-Dwight Howard was. How could I? It stung too much. While Dwight was off destroying worlds, I was busy watching the orange-ass bobcats poot away lottery picks on guys like Sean May, Brandan Wright, D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson.

Playing for a division rival of course made it next to impossible to ignore him as well Imagine if your wife divorced you and then started dating your best friend, and then they moved in next door to you and also your ex-best friend won the Slam Dunk contest and took your ex-wife to the finals. Four times a season — every season — Howard tormented Charlotte.

#12’s Backlash

Since being traded to the Hornets, Howard has taken to using the hashtag #12isBack, a reference to the iconic jersey he will don for his fifth team this year. But if we’re talking years, ‘12 is one the Hornets and Howard would likely both prefer to forget. The Bobcats went 7-59, infamously setting the benchmark for the single worst season in NBA history. It was also the dawn of what became known as The Dwightmare, a season pockmarked by bad luck and worse decisions and the genesis of the national backlash Howard.

You know this part of the story. He feuded with Stan Van Gundy, demanded a trade, then said he was staying, then waffled back and forth for months, with every detail of the process being meticulously covered by the media. The pattern seemed to endlessly repeat itself every year. Howard kept moving to different teams, but the problems persisted. He was basketball’s Taylor Swift: If you write enough songs about how bad your exes were, eventually you start to look like the problem.

Now this stuff seems commonplace. But this was fairly close to Lebron’s “Decision” and people were struggling to get used to the idea that athletes, like the rest of us schlubs, should you know, be allowed to have an opinion on where they work.

Of course greatness trumps everything, and people are generally accepting of flaws as long as you’re winning. The problem was that Dwight no longer looked like a top five player. A herniated disk suffered during that doomed 2012 season robbed him of much of his otherworldly athleticism. Superman was looking more and more like Howard the Duck. As his production and stats dipped, public opinion followed.

In a weird way, Dwight is being hurt by just how amazing he once was. Because the thing is, even 50 percent of peak Dwight is still a really, really good basketball player. Here’s the other thing — he’s going to be the best center the Hornets have ever had.

Okay, fine, the best center this iteration of the franchise has ever had. But it’s still close. Yes, Alonzo Mourning gave us three really exciting, good years. He also refused to re-sign with the team (something I can't fault any player on a George Shinn owned team for) forcing them to trade him right as he was on the cusp of entering his prime. Why didn't the media and fans kill Zo for doing essentially the same thing Dwight would do ten years later? Because he wasn't silly? He scowled a lot instead of eating gummy bears and goofing around?

Zo leaving was the beginning of the Hornet’s curse at the five. Aside from him, Charlotte has never had a single All-Star season from a center. Technically, we did draft Jamaal Magloire who subsequently made one All-Star roster in 2004 after the franchise had moved to New Orleans (You can read about that in this article titled The 25 Worst NBA All-Star Selections of All Time, where he is ranked #2.)

This is a franchise that went through years of Primoz Brezec and Byron Mullens starting at center. They drafted Bismack Biyombo to fill the spot, passing on the likes of Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and (gulp) Kawhi Leonard. We had Boris Diaw: the Fat Years. We had clinically deceased Roy Hibbert.

Even the team’s best seasons at center came with asterisks. Vlade Divac averaged 13/9/4 with 2 blocks and 1.5 steals for the Hornets during the 1996-97 season, and all the Hornets had to do to acquire that production was trade one of the top ten players of all time. Tyson Chandler helped that 2010 Bobcats team clinch their first playoff birth, but missed a third of the season with a foot injury. He was traded to the Dallas Mavericks the next year and was the best player not named Dirk Nowitzki on that team, which oh by the way, won the championship. Technically, the greatest center ever to wear a Hornet’s uniform was Robert Parish — a four time champion, nine time All-Star, Hall of Famer and one of the 50 greatest players of all time wore the teal and purple for two seasons, and they happened during the 999th and 1,000th years of his life.

#12isHasEnteredtheBuilding

The Hornets don’t even need 12 to be back to his old form. If he gives the team similar production to last season, it will be a sea change for this franchise. Howard finished the 2016-17 season in the top ten of defensive win shares (4.5) and true shooting percentage (.627). He ranked fifth in defensive rating and his 63 percent effective field goal was good enough for fourth best in the league, as well as a career high. Is this a good time to point out that Dwight is reuniting with the defensive-minded coach he was with when he won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards?

Despite declining athleticism, Dwight’s proclivity for cleaning glass has barely diminished over the years. Charlotte has only had three players in franchise history average 10 rebounds a game: Mourning (10.1 over 3 years), Anthony Mason (10.0/3 seasons), and Okafor (10.7/ 5 seasons). Last season Dwight was 5th in the league with 12.7/game, which is also his career average over 13 seasons. He’s the NBA’s active leader in both rebounds and blocks.

Dwight is still getting it done, just not at the same mind-boggling rate he once did as a perennial top five MVP candidate. Call me naive, but this has bounce-back season written all over it. A big part of that thinking is the circumstances of how he got here.

A lot of Dwight-bashing stems from his constant state of restlessness within a franchise. After waffling back and forth with the Magic over two seasons, he finally forced his way to L.A. He wasn't comfortable there, so he walked to Houston, where the problems were head coach Kevin McHale and James Harden. So he signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks, who traded him to the Hornets in return for the second best Plumlee brother (currently injured) on one of the worst contracts in the NBA.

That’s the only real red flag about this whole situation. Many people, myself included, thought that Plumlee contract was unmovable. The type you’d have to attach a couple first round picks to in a salary dump trade. Getting back Dwight Howard, and moving UP 10 slots in the draft, was too good to be true. Did Dwight murder somebody? The simple answer seems to be regime change. The Hawks had hired a new general manager just five days prior to the trade. They wanted to rebuild, and you can't have a rebuild with a Hall of Fame center entering his 14th season on your roster.

The trade had to have some effect on Howard’s ego. For the first time in his career, he didn't pick his landing spot. He was sent away, and the return back for his previous team set his value in no uncertain terms. To his credit, Howard has done and said all the right things, fully embracing his new team and seemingly determined to prove us all wrong and regain his status among the NBA elite. Maybe the trade opened his eyes.

Its nearly impossible to be objective about one’s own work; to see yourself as everyone else does. This could be just the awakening Howard needed. A re-calibration of his outlook and place in the modern game.

You can't build a championship contender around a Dwight Howard centerpiece anymore, in the same way you can't build a blockbuster film around Tom Cruise. Neither of them are that guy anymore. But as a supporting actor? Now that just might work. The Hornets didn’t trade for Dwight Howard with designs to build a contender around him. They rolled the dice on him with a low risk/high reward opportunity. If he fits, great. If he doesn't, no one will blame them for giving it a shot.