It’s not really news so much as an assumed thing that Dwight Howard isn’t wanted by his current team, because that team keeps changing. It has every offseason for the past four years. Houston to Atlanta to Charlotte to, just recently, Brooklyn. It’s a—shame is not the word, maybe the Germans have something for when certain disaster is averted—that Dwight didn’t end up with the Nets back in 2012, where he would have joined Deron Williams to form the most unlikable pick-and-roll tandem in the league, and then asserted after a month or two that he doesn’t like running the pick-and-roll and demanded more paint touches. Anyway, the Nets screwed themselves up pretty badly without Dwight’s help, which is why he’s with them in 2018, his big expiring contract a makeweight for Timofey Mozgov’s longer, more expensive deal. We’ve reached the point where Dwight Howard trades aren’t even a little bit about Dwight Howard anymore. He’s simply a means for the Nets to clear out cap space for next summer.
It’s Dwight, and so nobody is too torn up about his sudden—now total—demise, but it has been remarkable, the amount of lousy luck the guy has caught since leaving Orlando. Back problems and a general team-wide snakebittenness sunk his one year with the Lakers. More back problems and a suite of lower body injuries plagued him in Houston, where he never totally fit next to James Harden. And then he began to disappear. David Letterman once cracked that having a TV show that starts at 1:30 in the morning is basically like not having a TV show. The 2016-17 Hawks and 2017-18 Hornets were the 1:30 a.m. time slot of the NBA, and Dwight was the star of those barely extant programs. Or wait, Kemba Walker was the star of last year’s Hornets and Dwight was a supporting player. Who knows how long he’ll last with Brooklyn. He seems like an obvious buyout candidate. There’s no compelling reason for the Nets, who are trying to build for the long-term, to let him eat into Jarrett Allen’s minutes. (Which is a sentence that more or less sums up how far Dwight has fallen.)
Norms establish themselves quickly in the NBA. It’s accepted dogma these days that you want a roster stacked with switchy wings who can shoot—that, whatever, perhaps the Celtics will just play Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown all at the same time next season—even though that’s only been a proven strategy for a few years. By the same token, no-range big men are neck-deep in dirt wondering what the hell happened to the post-up game. Al Jefferson was a genuinely useful player circa 2014, but Clint Capela is today’s model. If you’re pushing seven feet and you’re not going to space the floor, you had better be a gifted athlete, an instinctive defender, and crash the boards like a maniac. Twenty-five-year-old Dwight Howard ticked all those boxes, but at thirty-two, creaky and sour, he doesn’t offer enough to crack a good team’s starting lineup.
He might appreciate this image, were it not about him: Dwight cuts the figure of a hapless Looney Tunes schemer, flattened in rapid succession by an anvil, a safe, then an ocean liner. His career has come apart swiftly and gratuitously, to the extent that it’s easy to forget that he was an MVP candidate in the late aughts and early teens, that he was by a comfortable margin the best player on a Finals team in 2009. Of course, you can look these accomplishments up, but you can’t—not unless you’re a wistful Magic fan, maybe—exactly access the feeling of how terrifyingly spry he used to be, sprinting to the block and uglying the ball into the basket; or rolling, catching, and dunking; or rendering the key a no-go zone for all but the craftiest finishers. Dwight wasn’t a nice player; he was a great, game-altering one. That’s why the Lakers traded for him in 2012, why the Nets tried to, and why the Mavericks dismantled a championship team to clear out cap space for him. Dwight was annoying, and that was abundantly observed by media types, coaches, and teammates, but most general managers didn’t care, because putting up with him was understood as a kind of emotional tax on title contention.
Now well past his prime, Dwight is only lamented, or ignored. He had a solid season in Charlotte, and he remains a good rebounder and reasonably efficient scorer, but there’s a ponderous irrelevance about him, likes his stats are asterisked with (in a game few people cared about, within the armpit of a Tuesday night League Pass slate). He’s doing a thing that’s somehow worse than flaming out, which is to say just sort of bummerishly persisting, fading in the memory even as he sticks around.
This part is not Dwight’s fault. He should play as long as he wants to, as long as the league will have him. The Hornets and Nets don’t seem particularly interested in him beyond his salary figure, but there are other places he could go, to disappear for a while before we remember that, right, he’s still with us, like a vague, recurring itch in the back of our throats. Dwight’s personal peevishness and immaturity aside, the back half of his career has been a long, agonizing decline for someone who was a bona fide star not so long ago. That’s something worth mourning, no matter how you feel about the player himself.