Through this season’s first eight games, Dwight Howard has been very good and so have his Hawks. It makes me sad and frustrated but also happy and excited, which I know sounds at least a little bit weird, but it’s really not. First, some numbers. Right now …
- Dwight’s averaging nearly 20 points per 36 minutes, good for the third-highest average of his career, and less than two points off his all-time best (21.9, during the 2010–11 season).
- The Hawks are 6–2, good for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference (and probably soon to be second in the East, because the Hornets are 6–1 right now and so they’re ahead of the Hawks, but, I mean, they’re the Hornets so that means we can’t be more than a few days away from the beginning of a nine-game losing streak or some shit like that).
- Dwight’s averaging a double-double that nearly matches his career points per game average (15.9 this season, 17.8 career) and is just short of his career rebounds per game average (12.6 to 12.7), and he’s doing so despite playing the fewest minutes per game of his career (28.8 minutes per game average for the season compared to 35.3 minutes per game average for his career).
- The Hawks have the ninth-best offensive efficiency in the entire league, which, OK, I don’t know how into stats you are, but that’s better than all but eight teams. (FYI, they finished last season at 18th.) (Also FYI, that was better than all but 17 teams.)
- Dwight’s player efficiency rating is 24.9, good for the third highest of his career. For context, All-Stars usually have a PER that floats somewhere around or above 20.0, and league MVPs are usually somewhere around 27.5. (When Dwight took the Magic to the Finals in 2009, his PER was 25.37.) (LeBron’s was 31.67 that year.) (That’s the fourth-highest PER for a season ever.) (LeBron has been so goddamn good for so goddamn long.)
- The Hawks have the third-best defensive efficiency in the league (and the second best in the East).
OK, so those are some numbers and those numbers are good (and in some cases great). And it’s making for a mix of feelings in my chest.
Here’s the thing: Dwight Howard is currently my third-favorite NBA player to root against. My first-place guy to root against is James Harden, who plays basketball like your friend plays a fighting video game — just doing a foot sweep over and over again — by which I mean to say he plays in an undeniably effective way but also in an irritating way. (To be clear, Harden is without question one of the four best basketball players in the world right now. There is no denying that. I don’t want it to sound like I don’t think that’s the case, because I do. He very well might foot-sweep his way all the way to the MVP trophy in May.)
My second-place guy to root against is Steph Curry, and I want to be sure here to relay that I love Steph Curry and think he is tremendous, but it’s just that he’s so good at basketball that it sometimes makes me mad. I will never have dominion over anything the way Steph seems to have dominion over everything. I’m jealous of that. Sometimes it’s just nice to see a winner trip over his shoelaces, you know what I’m saying.
And then there’s Dwight, the big galoot, in third. He used to be higher up; in 2015, back when the Rockets were good and intimidating, he was probably first or second. Then 2016 happened (a double-thumbs-down season for Howard and also the Rockets) and he fell all the way off the fucking planet. And when that happened, it was just like, “What’s even the point of rooting against this guy anymore?” Because, OK, sure, it’s a tiny amount of fun to watch someone you’re rooting against squirm around a bit in obsolescence. But after more than a few minutes of it, it feels less like you’re rooting against someone and more like you’re picking on that person. I don’t like that. It’s not that good of a time. It’s why it was so super not fun watching Dwight lose to the Warriors in the playoffs last year.
I like for the players I’m rooting against to be players I’m terrified of. It’s exciting to know that, should they feel inspired to do so, they can remove my basketball head from my basketball shoulders in a game I’m watching. A convenient example: The Spurs and the Rockets played in San Antonio on Wednesday night and James Harden, that beautiful motherfucker, put up a very gross triple-double (24–12–15) in a two-point win. I was upset that my beloved Spurs lost, but I was happy to see that the Rockets this season (fun and a real threat again) ain’t the Rockets from last season (a big box of dirty diapers). I’m excited about the possibility that they’ll be good in the playoffs again. I’m excited to root for them to lose, but only because I know there’s a real chance that they could win. That’s how it has to work, I think. It’s paradoxical — hoping for success for someone just so you can see it get taken away later is still, in a manner, hoping for that person to be successful — but I guess it just has to be that way. Rooting against the Warriors in the Finals last season was such a great time, and it wasn’t because of Draymond Green’s all-world goon qualities or Klay Thompson’s perfect jump shot or Steph’s perfect life, it was because they’d climbed so high up that watching them fall became more interesting than watching them win.
Do you remember 2009, back when Dwight Howard looked like he was making the leap? That was the year he became the second player to win the Defensive Player of the Year award at the age of 23 and also the year he piled all of the rest of the Orlando Magic onto his quarter-mile-wide shoulders and carried them to the NBA Finals. That was a great period. He’d actually made himself into a proper superstar during the Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend the year prior, joy and charm pouring out of him in a way that was undeniable. He was so likable during that Dunk Contest, and then after that his 2009–10 season and his 2010–11 season were so good and dominant. But then things turned to ash in Orlando. He left for L.A. and then had his legs cut off by Kobe. Then he left for Houston, and he of course eventually poured water all over that sand castle, too. And somewhere during that super-long episode of Come The Fuck On, Man, he became a fun guy to root against. Then, just that quick, he just all the way disappeared.
Now he’s back. He’s in Atlanta, his hometown, and it looks like — fingers crossed — he might be good again.
I’m sad about that because he is my enemy and I don’t want to see my enemy do well, but I’m happy about that because he has to do well for him to be my enemy and having enemies is more fun than not having them. There’s a reason they make the bad guy scary in movies.