It's hard to talk about the Houston Rockets without coming back to how you feel about Dwight Howard. Howard has gone from franchise centerpiece with the Orlando Magic to second banana in Houston, yet so much of the conversation about the Rockets revolves around the public perception of their star center. I would say he's polarizing except no one really seems to like him anymore. He's routinely pummeled as obnoxious, immature, annoying and completely lacking in self-awareness and most social graces. Can the Rockets really count on a guy like that to win a championship?
I'm not here to defend Howard as a human being because I don't know him and I've never interacted with him outside of being part of a mob of reporters asking him questions at a media session. What I'm wondering is how much any of that stuff really matters.
Let's go back to 2009, when Howard was the best player on a Magic team that went to the NBA Finals. It would be easy to say that he "carried" a team without any other All-Stars to three series victories, but really it was more the Magic were built to maximize the strengths of his game. They were one of the early prototypes of the pure 4-and-out team, surrounding Howard with a bunch of shooters and playmakers who could allow him to play in space and create easy shots for him around the rim. On the other side of the floor, Howard's defensive abilities allowed the Magic to feature sieves like Hedo Turkoglu who wouldn't be nearly as effective without a Defensive Player of the Year behind them.
There were a lot of reasons why the Magic weren't able to seal the deal and beat the Los Angeles Lakers in those Finals. You can point to Howard not having what it takes as a leader to be the best player on a championship team, or that his rudimentary post moves were exposed by big men with the size to handle him 1-on-1, or that Orlando's lack of an elite shot creator on the perimeter finally caught up to them. Who knows what would happen if they had Jameer Nelson healthy and he could have attacked Derek Fisher off the dribble? Howard still would have been the same player if Nelson had changed the dynamic of the series but our perception of him would be totally different.
So much of the postseason narratives written about any these guys depend on factors totally outside of their control, while the exact same thing happening to two different players can be interpreted completely differently depending on their pre-existing reputations. Imagine what people would be saying about Howard and James Harden if the Rockets had been the team to blow a 3-1 lead in a second round series when they were up 19 points at home in the third quarter of Game 6? What would people be saying about Chris Paul's leadership if he had fueled that comeback playing with four bench players while Blake Griffin sat on the bench? We'd never hear the end of it.
Howard is no longer the guy he was in Orlando after all the surgeries, but he's still an elite interior defender, an elite rebounder and an elite finisher at the rim. He can create his own shot in the post, but he's no longer very efficient at it, and the other team can always foul him and send him to the line if he gets too close to the rim. He is who he is as a player and whether the Rockets can win a title will depend more on the type of line-ups they put around him and they match-ups they face in the playoffs than anything else.
If Houston does win a title, it doesn't necessarily mean that Howard has changed as a person or that we need to re-evaluate the rest of his career. It just means that he was in a better situation for his talents and the ball bounced his team's way. The playoffs are sold to us as the games that determine the legacies of the league's star players. No one wants to spend the rest of their lives being known as the guy who never won a ring. That's why the stakes couldn't be higher.
The reality is that we already know just about everything we need to know about these guys as players and next to nothing about them as people. When Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault in 2004, he famously told the media that it couldn't be true because "we know him." We don't. We know the image he portrays to the world. The great lie athletes are told is that image is the most important thing about them and that their image in the public eye defines who they are. Perception becomes reality so reality becomes anything that the majority of people agree to be true. Nothing becomes more important than changing how people perceive you to be.
I feel like any team with Dwight Howard on it has a chance to be really good because he is one of the best centers in the NBA. For me, that's as far as it has to go. I don't care if he's funny or annoying, I don't care how he comes across in interviews and I don't even particularly care if his teammates actually like him. I only care about what these guys do on the basketball court and I'd like to live in a world where we judge players not on the content of their characters but on how they play the game.
What I've always enjoyed about playing basketball is how the game can be a sanctuary. When people step on the court, they can put away the baggage they bring from the rest of their lives. It doesn't matter how cool you are or how successful you are or whether you fit in with people off the court - it's all about how you play the game and how your skill-set intersects with your teammates. I hate how popular culture has turned the professional game into a popularity contest that we use to judge the personalities of everyone involved. I'm not here to judge anyone as a human being.