The reason so many people are so fed up with Dwight Howard is because they don't know who he is or what he stands for. Does he want to be a champion? Does he want to be a star off the court? Is he desperate to be respected or liked -- or both?
All of these questions remain unanswered because Howard has yet to define himself.
If he knew who he was and who he wanted to be, then the rest of us would know too. We know what matters most to Kobe Bryant. We know what matters most to LeBron James -- at least we know now; it wasn't clear when he was a free agent in 2010 -- and we have a good sense for the priorities of Kevin Durant.
The reason why it is so easy to doubt Howard's bottom-line intentions is because he has yet to figure them out for himself. That's why this decision he is about to make as a free agent, the way he makes it and the path he takes thereafter are so important to his career. This is an opportunity to define himself, once and for all, in a constructive and meaningful way.
Does he understand the harm he has done to himself and his career? This point cannot be made often enough, because four years ago, at 23, he looked like the NBA's next great star. He had a bigger impact on the 2009 Eastern finals than LeBron, driving the Magic to the NBA Finals with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 12-of-16 free throws in Game 6.
That performance now defines Howard in a negative way. In the years since, he has failed to impact the NBA on the court in the same way he did that night in Orlando. Not one of his teams has won a playoff series in the last three years. He hasn't acted like the star he can be so much as he has behaved like an actor who hopes to be a star.
He put his arm around his coach in Orlando moments after the coach revealed that Howard was trying to get him fired. He pushed for trades out of Orlando, then re-signed with the team, then talked about loyalty, then made it clear he should be traded. These events, more than anything he has done with a basketball, have defined him.
It's not as if he can blame anyone else for what has become of him. There are millions of fans who want to like Howard. But he doesn't inspire them. It's as if he worries too much about defining their view of him, instead of focusing entirely on defining himself.
Last summer he was traded to the franchise that should have been the answer to all of his dreams. If he wanted to win championships, then no team in the NBA was more committed to, and experienced in, acquiring rings for players than the Lakers. If he wanted to be a star, then there could be no better stage than the Staples Center on the outskirts of Hollywood. But all that has come of it has been more of the same.
This week is not about Howard deciding whether to play for the Lakers or the Rockets or the Mavericks or the Hawks or the Warriors, who are now reportedly (and preposterously) in the mix to acquire him.
This week provides Howard with another opportunity to fulfill himself. Who is he? What does he stand for? What does he want to be?
All of this talk about finding the best fit -- it only goes so far. He is Dwight Howard. If he decided to do what James has done in Miami, then Howard could dominate the game at both ends of the floor. He could own the paint defensively and outrun all of the big men for open-floor dunks that would transform him and his team. If he was fully committed to himself then he could have everything.
Instead there are always these anonymously sourced stories -- which are not fabricated, which come from him and his camp -- about how he wants another coach, first in Orlando and now in Los Angeles. Why does he enable such negative issues to define him?
My own guess is that the leaked reports of his interest in Houston and Dallas were attempts to leverage the Lakers into making promises to Howard during their recruiting pitch this week. But it's to the point of being tiresome, all of this talk about whether he's happy.
Injuries have limited Howard over the past year and a half, but he appears to be healthy now. Wherever he signs and against whomever he plays, he should be dominant. If he had been defining himself on the court over the last three years, instead of being defined by his own indecisiveness over how best to steer his future, then there wouldn't be any of these questions about whether the Lakers or Rockets or Mavericks would be "his" team. His play would answer the questions before they could be asked. Any team would be his team.
Howard isn't the first star who has struggled to find his way. Before Shaquille O'Neal won his first championship as a 28-year-old, he was viewed as an underachiever who was distracted by his fame. But Howard needs to understand, desperately, that the more he appears to enjoy this week of free agency, the less he will be respected.
Because it isn't about being a free agent and having options and being wooed, as James learned in 2010. None of what is happening this summer is as important as what Howard is going to do on the court next winter.
All that matters is whether he is inspired. It has been too long since Howard has been inspiring, and it will be a shame if he doesn't inspire his teammates and rivals and fans of the NBA soon. If Howard fails to make a lasting impact on the NBA as he approaches the peak years of his career, then it won't be because he lacked the talent or because he didn't have the resources or because too many people were critical of him.
So much is at stake here, and it has much less to do with the decision he makes this week in public. It will have everything to do with the resolve he shows privately. It is not the shirt that defines the man.