I am tired of reading about Dwight Howard. It’s a fair bet that you are, too, but it’s also a fair bet that we’re tired for different reasons. Very likely you’re tired of his relentless boorishness, tone-deaf self-aggrandizement, and constant waffling. That’s your prerogative. But me, I’m tired of reading about Dwight Howard because it seems like every person I read complaining about Howard has forgotten that he is awesome.
More to the point: it seems to me that the past year and change has made the majority of fans forget that Dwight did this:
It is worth mentioning that the second clip there—Howard hanging more than 40 and 20 on the Warriors while wearing Orlando pinstripes—happened last calendar year. I found those highlights by typing in “Dwight Howard highlights” to YouTube, and while I grant that Howard is a uniquely annoying off-court presence, my response is basically to point to those YouTube results and say “scoreboard.”
Here is a small collection of things that Dwight does in those two videos:
At 3:48 in the first clip, from game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Dwight backs his man down with the third quarter coming to an end. Three defenders are in the paint, alternately crowding him and stepping into potential passing lanes for Orlando’s shooters on the perimeter. With the entire defense keyed on Dwight, Rafer Alston runs unguarded to the rim, where Dwight finds him for an impossibly wide open bucket.
At 4:50 in the same clip, Howard faces up Anderson Varejao in the fourth quarter. He takes two dribbles to his right, pivots, and spins back left, leaving Varejao three feet to his right. He finishes by dunking, one-handed, with his right hand, against his momentum. I suppose people who say Dwight doesn’t have a “post game” insist he must slam his butt into his defender for three dribbles before doing some kind of baby hook or up and under…but, uh, those people don’t know anything.
At 1:36 in the second clip, the game in which Dwight set an NBA record for freethrows attempted, he scores a layup while Andris Biedrins intentionally pulls him down by both biceps. Which is to say, Dwight can do a 240 pound shoulder press, midair, while scoring a layup.
I picked those three highlights because they more or less show why Dwight is so great, at least on offense, where his excellence is most often questioned. His game is an unprecedented combination of power and agility for a big man, and if his back to the basket moves don’t impress with their fluidity, I’d argue that his ability to get into space around the rim and elevate while three defenders (always at least three) crowd him is a more impressive feat of skill and balance than just about anything else one can do on a basketball court.
But most impressive to me is that first highlight, the Rafer Alston bucket. Take a minute and ask yourself how it is that Rafer Alston, in the second half of an Eastern Conference Finals game, could find himself getting an uncontested layup. The answer, of course, is Dwight’s presence, the threat of him blowing past his man and the threat of him finding the shooters so perfectly spaced around him. Three defenders shade toward him as he backs closer to the hoop. They jump and slide laterally when he glances toward the perimeter. Alston is almost able to simply walk under the basket, so intensely is the defense watching Dwight. If you want to learn how space and movement are the most valuable commodities in an NBA offense, watch Howard play.
In fact, I would argue that no single player has done as much to usher in the current era of the space-and-shoot offense as Dwight has. LeBron and Erik Spoelstra can claim credit for making it work in pursuit of a championship, but Dwight was anchoring a 4-around-1 attack before Twitter existed. His Magic teams were built around his ability to suck defenses into the paint and find his teammates on the perimeter; the space Dwight created was large enough to make Hedo Turkoglu look like a franchise player. Howard, maligned by his critics for lacking a certain grace and finesse, is the brute force that ushered in this era of beautiful offense.
And look where he is now. Playing on a team that emphasizes spacing and letting shots fly as much as any other in the league. With a pick-and-roll ball handler that makes the sidekicks of his glory days look, well, like Rafer Alston and a 32-year-old Vince Carter. Howard’s detour into Lakerland—and, yes, his amazingly backward insistence that he does not want to play in the pick-and-roll—have obscured the fact that a mobile paint presence Howard is what the Rockets offense is sort of already built around. He just hasn’t been there yet.
I am willing to write off the past year of insanity. Howard’s crimes are professional indecisiveness, ego, and a proclivity for terrible fart jokes. If that’s enough to turn you off of him forever, then I guess you also hate all the celebrities who’ve done actual gross things while plying their trade. You go ahead and keep hating on Dwight, but he and I will not invite you to our weekly Braveheart screening.
What it comes down to is that there is no other Dwight Howard. He is not even an archetype, because good luck finding a 6’9” center who can lead the league in rebounding and blocks while threatening to score 40 points any given night. It has often been noticed that Howard lacks the traditional post player build; his legs are skinny, his shoulders broader than his hips. What gets overlooked, because he is so strong, is that Dwight’s defining quality is his speed, his ability to slip into space and materialize at the rim in a way that belies his power.
And so I’m going to keep rooting for him, because it will be better not to feel cognitive dissonance when he is smashing James Harden alley-oops or precipitating an absolute hailstorm of threes this year. Free yourself from the echo chamber, friends. For as ungainly as his running hook may be, and no matter how ugly his off-court antics, nobody lays bare the game’s beautiful architecture quite like Dwight.