LeBron James has traversed the rockiest terrain of stardom and ambition: from beloved prodigy to betrayer of the place that drafted him and loved him most to uncomfortable villain to brutal failure to, now, NBA champion.
Two years. One long journey. And, in transitioning from The Decision to The Debacle to The Champion, a rewriting of the zeitgeist – and the very functioning – of the NBA.
The league is a different place because of what LeBron did. It is dominated by a few select teams that have clustered the top talent, it is on the verge of reclaiming the relevance lost after Michael Jordan’s retirement and its fans and media are more attuned to the pitfalls and possibilities that come with its greatest stars. Including those stars’ egos, talent and ability to function under the klieg lights of modern sports, where celebrity culture makes off-court happenings as pertinent to the season as what happens on it.
All of which means that, despite some differences, it is now Dwight Howard’s turn to step into the role LeBron James created: That of the petulant star leaving one humdrum team for a much sexier one and, in doing so, placing himself on the cusp of NBA dominance and championship rings and, on the other side, villainy and failure.
LeBron went first. Now Dwight gets to walk that razor-thin line.
To be sure, there are differences between the two, and for Howard they include distinct advantages: LeBron commands a level of attention and scrutiny even Howard does not, and so LeBron bears more pressure to be great. Howard has Kobe Bryant to lessen the burden of whatever expectations remain, to say nothing of taking on more responsibility for touches and clutch shots and blame, whereas LeBron had to be the man in Miami from day one. Howard carries the weight of being a once- or twice-in-a-generation center, whereas LeBron goes through his career as a one-of-a-kind-ever talent.
But there still have been, as with LeBron two years ago, warning signs that Dwight’s longed-for move to the big time would come with some strains.
Just this week, Dwight told reporters he wasn’t happy he hadn’t been awarded last year’s defensive player of the year award.
“I thought I should have won it last year, to be honest with you,” he told reporters in Los Angeles. “I was a little bit upset about that.”
Had LeBron said that this week, or at any point since joining the Heat, reporters would have swarmed all over him with shouts that his selfishness had been laid bare. I certainly would have. And the same logic applies to Dwight: Get past the awards and praise, get past yourself, get past a season in Orlando undermined by your utter selfishness and just focus on helping the Lakers be champions.
There have been more signs, starting, of course, with Dwight leaving Orlando more petulantly, if less dramatically, than LeBron did during “The Decision”. In last season’s ridiculous and Dwight-imposed Dwight Trade Watch, he managed to get Stan Van Gundy, an excellent head coach, fired. He was instrumental in Otis Smith leaving Orlando. He acted with utter insouciance toward his teammates and the season he’d hijacked from them as he seemed to revel in his self-indulged pretend hostage crisis. He was utterly, totally unlikable. He didn’t get the scorn LeBron got a year earlier, but he sure as hell should have.
This week Howard complained about that supposed slight with the defensive player of the year award. A few days earlier, he refused to address his future – after commandeering an entire season because that’s all he could think about. Yes, he will opt for free agency so he can sign a max deal and get the most possible money, and it’ll be with the Lakers. Everyone knows this.
A mature person in Howard’s shoes would spell this out and say he hopes and plans to stay – like, say, Chris Paul in that other locker room in Los Angeles.
There will be more of this, almost certainly much more, as Dwight’s massive ego bumps up against his new team, the expectations, the shared status and the fact that getting what you want doesn’t make life any easier.
Start with the fact this is Kobe’s team, not Howard’s – not yet – and that will also take maturity, humility and self-awareness to properly swallow and accept. Howard’s future is bright, very bright, if he can manage himself in the short term. Much like LeBron two years ago.
Much of how this goes will come down to self-awareness and maturity.
Dwight’s biggest advantages could be his undoing. LeBron’s fame, his ability to go anywhere he wanted, his incredible talent and the bubble it created around him – all of that molded him into a player who suffered through that first season in Miami.
But unlike LeBron, there will not be universal scorn on that scale for Howard, no outside and always prodding force to correct him, to call him out, to teach him, to reach him. That means there is the risk Howard can be self-absorbed, or a sometimes-cancer, or his own worst enemy, and have all of those things simmer because there is no shame or spotlight to force the change, growth and maturity that was hoisted on LeBron.
Howard’s biggest advantage – and perhaps stumbling block – will be Kobe. If he understands what Kobe can mean for him, Howard can spend two years transitioning into the leader of this team while learning from an all-time great and cold-blooded winner. With ease LeBron never knew, Howard can slowly blossom into the star of a championship-caliber team.
But there’s also Dwight’s ego out there, his immaturity, and the possibility they will not let him see Kobe – and Kobe’s likely tough lessons, including this week’s talk that Howard needs to up his offensive game – as the very real benefit he is. Anyone who can act the way Dwight did in Orlando last season brings a lot of baggage to the equation. Like LeBron, that kind of baggage can sabotage even the greatest talent when pooled with other incredible players.
Can Kobe Bryant and all his fire serve, if necessary, as the same kind of teacher LeBron’s self-imposed scorn did? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
But unless Howard learns from LeBron and matures overnight, we’re going to find out. Because this season will be about three teams: the Heat, who will try to repeat and who have figured themselves out as LeBron has done the same for himself; the Thunder, with a young group that has now tasted Finals defeat; and the Lakers, who need a fully able – and onboard – Howard to give Kobe what he needs for one last run.
The Lakers have one of the most talented starting lineups ever. But it only works if Howard works with it.
Two years ago, the NBA season was entirely defined by LeBron James’ discombobulated attempt to make amends with and sense out of how he left Cleveland – and all the turmoil that followed. Last year the NBA season turned on LeBron successfully overcoming those struggles, which had culminated in his Finals collapse against Dallas.
This season could hinge on whether Dwight Howard has similar growing pains or whether he turns Kobe’s presence and his lighter-pressure load into a quicker learning curve than LeBron was capable of.
Dwight Howard has a chance to be LeBron-like. The question is: Which LeBron will he be?