Look, there’s no getting around the fact that Dwight Howard was an insufferable clown for most of his career. With all the incredibly corny jokes, incessant pouting and awkward post-ups, Howard built a reputation as one of the least-liked players in the NBA, seemingly becoming equally despised by fans and players alike.
Now back in his hometown of Atlanta, Howard is trying to resurrect his career with the forward-thinking Hawks. And you know what? I am completely here for it.
Dwight grabbed 19 boards and chipped in 11 points in his Atlanta debut, which resulted in a home win against the Wizards. With the Hawks, I think Howard has finally found the right situation for himself—a supersized role player on a contending team. Obviously, it’s extremely early in the season, and history suggests that Howard will start complaining about his lack of touches in the post at some point. But what if ... he doesn’t?
I think the Hawks have a higher ceiling with Howard as opposed to Al Horford. Horford has been the better player in recent seasons, but a healthy Dwight—even at age 30—is a better defender and can absolutely wreck defenses in the pick-and-roll. Howard’s ability to vacuum up rebounds and anchor the paint also makes life so much easier for his teammates. And playing out of the spotlight should help Howard, who probably hasn't faced less pressure since his early days in Orlando.
Howard also has to be at least slightly more self-aware this season, right? Even if he truly does want more touches in the post, maybe he’s finally learned not to go public with his complaints. It is completely hokey and convenient to point to Howard’s self-excoriation on Inside the NBA as a career turning point, but that’s exactly what I’m about to do. Seriously, how many stars have gone on TV in the middle of their primes to basically ask Charles Barkley why no one loves them?
If the sympathy angle does nothing for you, perhaps you’ll appreciate the Hawks as a sleeper team in the East. Amid all the love for the Celtics and assumptions for the Raptors, Atlanta might have its own chance to dethrone LeBron James—though those chances are slim for everyone.
But if Howard really does raise Atlanta’s ceiling, he’s proven to have given LeBron trouble in a playoff series before. Is it totally inconceivable for the Hawks to channel some kind of 2009 Magic vibes to give us an entertaining playoff series against the Cavs? Don’t you want a reason to compare Paul Millsap to Hedo Turkoglu?
It really is a shame Howard wasted the best years of his career injured and sulking alongside ball-dominant stars Kobe Bryant and James Harden. Although he’s not necessarily the focal point, for the first time since his days in Orlando, Howard is on a team that’s more of a collective as opposed to star driven.
Dwight may never win you over—and he’s one awful impression away from ruining any good will he’s built that past few months—but he deserves one last look as someone who can MAYBE help add some drama to the Eastern Conference.