Dwight Howard rewrites his story with fresh start in Houston

Dwight Howard has shed the misery that engulfed him with the Lakers.  

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What a difference a year makes.

In 2013, Dwight Howard was a spoiled, soft, pretend superstar who couldn’t handle the biggest stage and wouldn’t have any major success until he stopped trying to please people and truly developed his game.

In 2014, Dwight Howard is a solid, secure, All-Star presence in the middle who has found a city and a team that fits him, and the stage is set for a return to the late rounds of the post-season.

Short of Pharrell, or maybe Matthew McConaughey, it’s hard to imagine who’s had it better over the last 12 months than D12. One year ago he was a major part of the wreckage that was the Los Angeles Lakers season, a big-budget blockbuster that never gained traction, swept away in the first round of the playoffs, and the subject of a “Keep Dwight” movement that always felt a little half-hearted.

One year later, Dwight is healthy, rested, and ready to begin the playoffs with a team that appears, on paper at least, to stack up with the rest of the contenders in an incredibly deep Western Conference.

So how did he get here? How did Dwight Howard rehabilitate his image, rejuvenate his career, and return to his rightful place as one of the most admired players in the game?

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What’s the secret that turned Dwight Howard from basketball pariah into franchise cornerstone?

Maybe there isn’t one.

Maybe Dwight hasn’t actually changed at all. Maybe we’re all just seeing what we want to see.

Dwight Howard is just the latest, most timely example of the curse of the athletic narrative.  Because sports are complicated, and people even more so, and rather than wading through the nuance, the shades of grey, the personal and professional forces that guide a career … it’s far easier to say simply that a man has no heart, and be done with it.

Remember when we were told that a team couldn’t possibly win an NBA title without a perennial All-Star? Then this happened.  Remember when Dirk Nowitzki was a soft, finesse player who proved that a European star could never be the best player on a championship team? Then this happened. And then, of course, there’s the case of King James, who despite all his athletic dominance, didn’t have the confidence or the “killer instinct” to win the big game, until of course, his team won a lot of big games, again and again, and LeBron found himself holding a lot of trophies.

Time after time, the NBA has taught us not to assume too much, that things aren’t always as simple as they appear. But do we ever learn our lesson? Not really. We made up our mind on Dwight Howard a few seasons ago. While he struggled and wavered with what was, any way you slice it, the biggest decision of his professional career, we called him wishy-washy. When he arrived in Los Angeles and a new incarnation of “Showtime” failed to take shape, we blamed not Dwight’s balky back, but a bad attitude, and a lack of chemistry. And when Dwight’s long awaited free-agency finally arrived, we had already written his narrative, as we had so many before.  Physically imposing, but mentally frail. Talented, but limited. Good, but not good enough.

Time after time, the NBA has taught us not to assume too much, that things aren’t always as simple as they appear.

Even today, as he prepares for the playoffs, still we cling to our preconceived notions of what Dwight was, and what he’s supposed to be.  Perhaps, we say, Dwight is finding success because he finally left the limelight.  (Never mind the fact that Houston is the fourth largest city in the country.) Maybe, things are better because Dwight is shouldering less of the load. (Just ignore the fact that Howard’s Usage Rate is higher than it was last season.) Could it be that the big man has put aside the goofy, fun-loving personality that has characterized him since he joined the league? (Not if this video is taken as evidence.)

There is no one big reason why the past year has been good to Dwight Howard, just a host of little ones. Injuries have healed, defensive form has returned, and Daryl Morey and Kevin McHale have built a capable, contending team around the franchise center. Next comes the playoffs, where Howard will have the opportunity to truly rewrite the narrative on his career, as so many have before him. All it takes is one title, one dramatic run, to permanently put the lie to all those who have judged him lacking in championship makeup.

Does Dwight have an NBA title in his future? It’s a question with thousands of variables, from the health of his team, to matchups on the floor, to shots that will hit or miss by fractions of an inch. We live in an era of incredible new statistics, of new ways to measure and predict everything that takes place on a basketball court, of cameras that quite literally track a player’s every move.

We know more than we ever have about the game of basketball, and yet at the same time, we know less, because we still insist on taking this treasure trove of information, taking something as elaborate and unpredictable as an NBA season, and simplifying it until the story fits our liking. Good guy vs. bad guy. Plucky underdog vs. entitled star. Alpha male vs. prima donna. Maybe the next time someone speaks in absolutes about a player, or a team, we’ll realize that competition isn’t that simple.

No matter how the coming weeks shake out, we would all do well to remember the story of Dwight Howard’s redemption. It’s notable, not for how much he changed, but for how little. As the noise followed him from LA to Houston, and the critics sharpened their knives for another fall from grace, Dwight did the only thing he, or anyone in his position, really could do.  He just kept playing.

After all, winning fixes everything. And that’s a narrative that never gets old.