I don’t mean to brag, but before Wednesday night it had been seven years since I’d watched an entire game featuring Dwight Howard. Every basketball fan should be so lucky. It’s not like I purposely set out to do this, though. It’s just that I’m a college basketball fan who only casually follows the NBA, and Howard has played for only one team (the 2014–15 Rockets) that was good enough to be even remotely relevant to guys like me, and that team nearly got swept in the Western Conference finals. Given my familiarity with Howard, any recent mention of his name would conjure up memories of the man who put on a Superman cape and won the dunk contest back in 2008, led the Magic to the NBA Finals by beating the defending champion Celtics and then LeBron’s Cavs in 2009, and again gave the Celtics all they could handle in the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. In short, a week ago I was under the assumption that Howard was one of the best players in the NBA.
But then Game 1 between the Wizards and Hawks unfolded and I was left questioning everything I thought I knew about Howard. I didn’t watch that game, of course, but I did get on Twitter while it was being played, and what I saw was deeply confusing.
Howard is trash? And soft? How is that possible? The man is built like a brick house and has a lengthy history of absolutely destroying defenders. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Surely the internet was overreacting to one game. I decided the only way to get the real truth was to take matters into my own hands and watch Game 2 from start to finish. And at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this was my takeaway: Howard is an abomination to the game of basketball and may well be the worst player in NBA history.
Every second that Howard was on the court Wednesday night — and there weren’t a ton, as he played only 20 minutes in a 109–101 loss — I focused solely on him, which made for exactly as miserable a viewing experience as you’d imagine. He never even feigned an attempt to hedge ball screens; he rarely blocked anyone out; he never bent his knees or brought his hands above his waist on defense; and he showed no desire to post up or stand in the paint on offense. It was jarring to see a 31-year-old, eight-time NBA All-Star who once averaged 20.6 points and 13.8 rebounds for a Finals team so blatantly not give a single shit in a pivotal playoff game. Keep your eyes on Howard throughout this sequence from the first quarter when 33-year-old Marcin Gortat, who once was Howard’s backup in Orlando, completely humiliated him.
Don’t be fooled by how much effort Howard put forth in backing down Gortat to open that clip. That only happened because Gortat had been frustrating Howard up until that point, and Howard apparently has no idea how to retaliate other than to put his head down and resort to pushing and shoving like a petulant child. (This behavior makes more sense upon discovering that Howard is so addicted to candy that the Lakers had to stage an intervention in 2013.) But even if you want to give Howard credit for establishing decent post position, what transpired next might as well be porn for college basketball fans who argue that NBA players don’t play hard. Upon catching the ball, Howard unsuccessfully tried to bulldoze Gortat, who blocked his shot without jumping. Howard then made no effort to hedge the ensuing ball screen set by Gortat on the other end of the floor, lost sight of a deflected shot as he failed to block out Gortat anyway, bent over at the waist to grasp for a loose ball that Gortat dove on the floor to recover, and then lackadaisically reached in on a John Wall crossover that led to a wide-open jumper.
The rest of the game brought more of the same, as Howard’s production seemed to derive exclusively from his being tall and standing beneath the basket. He finished with six points, seven rebounds, four fouls, and three turnovers. He was such a liability for the Hawks that he didn’t even get on the floor in the fourth quarter. I’m convinced that Howard has to be dealing with an undisclosed injury or something serious in his personal life. No other explanation makes sense. I refuse to believe that the same guy who looked like he kinda, sorta, maybe could have become the next Shaq seven years ago is now incapable of catching a chest pass or making a half-hearted attempt at saving the ball as it bounces out of bounds.
On second thought, though, maybe Howard should be applauded for his approach to basketball. Since fans seem to love making false equivalencies between their jobs and the jobs of professional athletes (“I can’t believe that DeMarcus Cousins can yell at his coach and get paid $16 million a year even though if I tried that with my boss I’d be immediately fired!”), let’s look at the Howard situation through a similar lens. Isn’t Howard at the level that most of us are striving to reach in our respective professions? He makes a ton of money while giving zero effort; he faces no pressure since he doesn’t play in crunch time; and he’d have no shortage of suitors should things go south with his current gig. He’s the embodiment of the American Dream, really.
In all seriousness, while I understand there are a million more interesting things going on in this year’s NBA playoffs, Howard’s transformation from an unstoppable physical freak into a guy who can’t be bothered to break a sweat is the thing I find the most fascinating. And yeah, I know that the league has experienced an enormous style-of-play shift since Howard’s heyday, but that’s irrelevant to what went down on Wednesday night. Howard’s problems have nothing to do with style or system and everything to do with the fact he cares so little about basketball that he might actually expel more energy in not caring than he would if he just tried giving a damn.
This is the part of this post where, under normal circumstances, I’d make my case that Howard’s apathy is actually good for the NBA, and that the league needs more guys whom casual and/or neutral fans can cheer against. I’d offer my condolences to Atlanta fans who have to endure this night in and night out, I’d toss in a joke about how Howard cares more about showing off his shoulders than winning games, and I’d apologize to the people I thought were crazy for tweeting about how bad he is.
But instead of all that, I think I’ll just go back to not watching Howard play basketball for at least another seven years.