With move to Houston, all pressure squarely on Dwight Howard
It's all in good fun. Just about everything Howard does seems to be in good fun. But from here on, Howard has to be heavy on the good and light on the fun.
Howard is out of excuses. More importantly, he is out of leverage.
The Rockets don't have to kiss up to him the way Orlando did for a while. They also won't tiptoe around his immaturity, like the Lakers did for one awkward season. The Rockets need him, but they don't need to please him. For the first time since Howard became a superstar, his employer holds the hammer.
Howard chose his team. Now he has to show he was worth the fuss.
The next time his camp leaks a story about Howard being unhappy with his coach, we'll all point at Howard and laugh. He knew Kevin McHale was the Rockets coach when he agreed to this deal. (At least, I think he did.)
If Houston loses, it won't be the coach's fault, the offense's fault, or even James Harden's fault. It will be Howard's fault. You can be sure Rockets fans will turn on Howard before they turn on Harden or general manager Daryl Morey.
Howard is about to discover what LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and many others have learned painfully: Free agency seems like the end of a process, but it isn't. Howard can't ride off into the sunset. He has to produce.
His choice was wise. Of all the teams wooing him, the Rockets are the most likely to build a champion around him. The Lakers were selling the past and future, but not the present. The Mavericks and Hawks were promising they would make more promises.
This was a sensible decision by a man who hasn't made many of those in the last two years. Howard has always been part superstar and part cartoon, even before he wore a cape in the NBA slam-dunk contest. He is easy to mock but hard to truly dislike. He is like the Tom Hanks character in "Big" -- giddy that he is larger than he ever imagined, but not quite prepared to act like an adult.
In an era when players try to force trades and act like free agents long before they actually are free agents, Howard seems like the worst of the breed. But he is actually a breed of his own. Other players are too calculating. Howard isn't calculating enough. He could have saved us all a lot of annoying headlines if he had a goal in mind all this time. Instead, he has spent two years on a career hamster wheel.
In 2011-12, while the Magic were paying him an eight-figure salary to play basketball, he demanded a trade. Then he changed his mind and opted into his contract, saying, "I'm very loyal and I've always put loyalty above anything." Then he demanded a trade again. He ended up in Los Angeles. He was extremely happy there until practice started. Then, not so much.
In Orlando, he wanted Stan Van Gundy fired but denied it. In Los Angeles, his people leaked stories about unhappiness with coach Mike D'Antoni. A player can only sound that bell so many times before fans get a headache. Howard has to get along with McHale. He has no choice.
He also has to show he is a true superstar. I think he is, but there are legitimate questions. Howard's ability slipped last season. He used to be the most dominant defensive force in the league, and a man you could build an offense around -- even though his offensive game is unpolished, he was so strong and athletic he forced defenses to adjust to him, creating space for shooters.
Last year, he was not the same force. He was 36th in the league in player efficiency rating -- just behind J.J. Hickson, Marc Gasol and Greg Monroe, and barely ahead of Serge Ibaka, Kevin Garnett and David Lee. Those are not max-contract players. (Garnett was, of course, but no longer is.)
There were two good reason for the decline: Howard was recovering from a back injury and playing for a new team, with an offense and teammates that did not seem to suit him.
He is only 27, and can be a dominant player for several more years. But he has to want to dominate. That means changing his diet so he can stay healthy. It means acting like a champion instead of a clown. And it means refining his offensive game, so he doesn't rely so much on athleticism, which will inevitably fade as he ages. It also means finally growing up.
Other players want to be carried to a championship. They have the mental makeup and personality to help others. They believe in the mission, but they don't want to lead it.
Howard thinks he is the kind who wants to carry a team, but he really wants to be carried. This has been problematic for the two teams that have employed him. The Magic treated him like a cornerstone, but Howard didn't act like one. The Lakers thought they landed a superstar to go with Kobe Bryant, but this particular superstar didn't seem to want to go with Kobe Bryant.
The second half of Dwight Howard's career starts now. The comedy should be over. It's time for a thriller.