In the five long, altitude-changing years since Dwight Howard left the Magic, his postseason legend, “Playoff Dwight” (creative), has found unsuccessful playoff teams. After a seven-game losing streak, Atlanta is tied for the fifth seed, but just two games out of the eighth spot. Whether or not the Hawks make the playoffs, it is looking like another year of guzzling a Kryptonite Big Gulp for the center formerly known as Superman. But look closer and you’ll see: This season is not on Dwight.
Let’s go through some recent Dwight history. With the exception of Houston’s 2015 Western Conference finals loss, Howard has played a major role in three first-round outs since arriving in Los Angeles in 2012, via trade. None of those exits were served neat, but instead with a 6-foot-11 helping of controversy muddled in like overpowering bitters. Being traded to the Lakers before the 2012 season — after asking to go to the Brooklyn Nets (see, Dwight, it could be worse) — brought controversy. Howard was painted as a guy with a bad attitude, and the postseason that followed — he was ejected after double-techs in Game 4 of an eventual sweep against the Spurs — did nothing to help that image.
Another ugly departure followed, and the road out of town was dotted with desperate billboards. The highlight of Howard’s three years in Houston was that Western Conference finals appearance, but it was sandwiched between two disappointing early eliminations.
In his first season, the Rockets snagged the fourth seed, only to be eliminated in the first round against Portland. In the deciding game, Howard scored 26, grabbed 11 boards, and went 6-of-11 at the line, a damning 54.5 percent (even for a career marked by disastrous free throws), as Houston lost by just one point, 99–98. We see you, Chandler.
In the 2015 playoffs, Dwight was ejected during a crucial Game 4 loss in the second round against the Clippers — much forgotten after the Rockets’ remarkable comeback, but still a demerit in the attitude-reliability category.
The following season was a familiar story: After not getting along with Kobe, it wasn’t clicking for Howard with James Harden, either. Houston ended at just 41–41, dropping all the way to ninth in the standings in April and losing nine of 14 from mid-March on. Dwight was frozen out of the offense, and, late in the season, his averages dipped to 9.1 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. A first-round elimination to Golden State sent the Rockets back to Houston, and Howard home to Atlanta.
Now, Dwight finds himself on a team trying to right its own track record. Before the Slip ’N Slide (’N Slide, ’N Slide, ’N Slide) of a seven-game losing streak, the Hawks were battling with Toronto for the 4-seed, poised for another mid-tier seeding and respectable second-round out — forever staying in the limbo of being good, but not that good. Very Hawks.
For much of this season, Atlanta was forgotten, with new Eastern Conference darlings in Washington and Boston grabbing much of the headlines. But despite losing Al Horford and Jeff Teague in the offseason, and Kyle Korver in what seemed like a fire-sale trade at the time, Atlanta’s front office appeared to pivot to making another postseason push, pulling Paul Millsap off the market before the trade deadline.
Rough seas were expected, but the Hawks have started sinking. More dependent than ever on Millsap this season after Horford’s departure, the big man’s left knee synovitis diagnosis (and the six games he’s missed since) has been the real torpedo in the Hawks hull. Millsap is out for two more games, and the Hawks are 1–8 without him this season. They eked out a four-point win over the tanking Suns on Tuesday night to stop a seven-game skid. Now, Atlanta ends its season against a bunch of teams in desperation mode: Cleveland twice, the Celtics, the Pacers, and even the ninth-ranked Bulls. Millsap is out for at least another two games, and even when he returns, it’s unlikely he’ll be at 100 percent; Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore are trying to recover from injuries; Dennis Schröder is hosting a turnover festival; late addition Jose Calderon’s shot has disappeared. Howard is the one healthy and consistent veteran that Atlanta can turn to right now.
Howard is having the best rebounding season of his career. He grabs nearly a fourth of all possible boards while on the court, notching career-highs in offensive and defensive rebounding per 36 minutes. He’s never shot more accurately, laying in 63.3 percent from the field. And with an injured Millsap, and the rest of the team either tweaked or in a funk, he’s the most talented player on the court every night.
Playoff Dwight isn’t enough to surge past the upper tier of the Eastern Conference. Even if the Hawks hold firm on the fifth seed, they’ll face the heating-up Bucks; if they drop, they’re looking at perimeter-heavy Boston, the frightening backcourt in Washington, or Cleveland, which, even with a defensive rating of a stand-alone football blocking dummy, has LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
Even Howard filling Millsap’s void for five of the past six games has resulted in losses. But history won’t point to him when the Hawks fail. In an interview with The Undefeated, Howard played back all the issues that have followed him like a cloud since he left Orlando, stories of rubbing Kobe and Harden the wrong way and his role in each season’s thwarted ending. “I’ve never been the one to say, ‘OK, I want to talk about this because it was an issue with me.’ But everyone else kind of made it a story line. And here in Atlanta, there is no story line.”
For a 31-year-old, six years removed from being elite in Orlando, that’s at least a change in the narrative.