Dwight Howard’s Superman Returns

Dwight Howard’s career was crashing more dramatically to Earth than a victim of his facial dunks.

Ever since abruptly leaving the Orlando Magic in 2012, injuries, team in-fighting and the modern game passing him by systematically sapped powers from the wunderkind once known as Superman. No longer more powerful than a locomotive and leaping over tall buildings, he was recently declared done by fans and media alike.

However, Howard has seemingly overcome this collective kryptonite, regaining a semblance of his powers through buying into the Los Angeles Lakers team concept and playing to his strengths.

Howard’s Magical rise

In 2003-04, high school senior Howard shot to prominence faster than a speeding bullet at Atlanta’s Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, one of the premier basketball schools in the nation. He averaged 25.0 points, 18.0 rebounds, 8.1 blocks and 3.5 assists per game and lead his Warriors to the 2004 Georgia state title while winning numerous national awards.

Howard followed in childhood idol Kevin Garnett’s footsteps by skipping college straight to the NBA Draft. His size (6’11”, 240 pounds), superior athleticism and efficacious charisma spurred the Orlando Magic to select D12 with the first pick of the 2004 NBA Draft.

Partly why Orlando took a chance on Howard was to fill the void left by another former high-schooler-turned-NBA-star, Tracy McGrady. McGrady—along with Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue and Reece Gaines—had been traded to the Houston Rockets in a package headlined by talented-yet-mercurial point guard Steve Francis, requiring Howard to become Magic’s new fulcrum.

He rose to the incredible challenge by leading the Magic as the NBA’s last great high school draft pick. He didn’t blink twice in measuring himself against fellow high school phenom LeBron James’ monster 2003-2004 rookie season. Howard dunked and blocked his way to a stellar rookie campaign ( 12.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 1.7 bpg in 82 games) while actually collecting a higher Win Shares (WS) mark (7.3) than King James’ (5.1) 2003-04 year, as well as 2004 No. 2 pick and eventual 2004-05 Rookie of the Year’s Emeka Okafor (4.0), according to Basketball-Reference.

Superman gained 20 pounds by 2005 and shifted over to center. He averaged 18.4 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 2.2 bpg and an .577 Effective Field Goal percentage on his way to three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, six All-Star Game selections, five All-NBA and All-Defense First Team selections. He even removed his Clark Kent glasses to don a billowing red cape and win the 2008 Slam Dunk Contest.

Howard also willed a rather unimpressive Magic squad past LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to make the 2009 NBA Finals and finished second in 2010-11 MVP voting despite collecting 14.4-13.1 WS over winner Derrick Rose.

Forgotten already? Let this mixtape documenting Howard eating opponents for breakfast, lunch and dinner change your mind:

the fall

Superman faced nasty doses of kryptonite when Orlando granted his cringy trade request to the Lakers in a four-team, 11-player, five-draft pick mega-blockbuster in 2012.

LA hoped to pair the future Hall of Fame player with legends Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash in forming their own super team to dethrone LeBron’s Miami Heat.

Nash faded in and out of the lineup with leg and back injuries and never could develop the pick-and-roll synergy then-coach Mike D’Antoni envisioned. Howard himself sustained a back injury and a torn labrum, plus struggled to maintain his conditioning throughout the season. He also didn’t get along with Bryant, who eventually called him soft after D12 elbowed him in the face twice a few years later.

Howard declined the Lakers’ 5-year, $118 million contract offer to sign a 4-year, $88 million max with the Houston Rockets. He seemed to mesh fine enough with James Harden for the first couple years, earning an All-Star appearance and an NBA Second-Team honor.

The duo won 56 games in 2014-15 and took down the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs before the ascending Golden State Warriors won a close 5-game series.

Harden and Howard’s relationship soured in 2015-16 with the center apparently not coping well with Harden’s rise to superstardom. As Harden decided to get his other teammates more touches, they both reportedly tried to get the other traded.

Howard then became an NBA nomad, bouncing around the league with a trade to the Charlotte Hornets, signing with the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards with declining production each season.

That declining production was partly due to his health problems, poor conditioning brought on by an infamous sweet tooth, and the wear and tear from playing in the post (40,224 regular and postseason minutes per Basketball Reference sans national team play). Big men were also forced to become effective behind the 3-point line and switch to the perimeter defensively, something Howard didn’t initially adapt to.

His career appeared all but over by last year when he received a season-ending spinal surgery while also dealing with a lingering hamstring issue. His contract with the Wizards was not renewed.

The revival

Dec 6, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (39) celebrates a score during the first half agains the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Though it would have been unthinkable just a few seasons prior, Howard returned to a new-era Lakers team to join James, Anthony Davis and a host of other newcomers. Though he was brought in on a non-guaranteed, “prove-it” contract, Howard rededicated his body and attitude to the game, likely saving his career in the process.

It’s working wonders.

Lakers’ trainers say Howard has enhanced his diet and conditioning, cutting back on his candy addiction. He’s shed 25 pounds to play more physical defense and run the floor better. He is not trying to steal the spotlight from James and Davis, instead deciding to complement them effectively off the bench as the backup center behind JaVale McGee.

Howard’s also developed a good rapport in the two-man game with James, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso, rim running to catch lobs in transition and rolling to the basket in the dunker position in half-court sets. This allows him to gain easy baskets in limited minutes (19.6 minutes per game is more than 10 minutes less than his full-season low), with him earning 11 double-digit games so far this year while placing third in team WS (2.9).

These are all things he was able to previously do, but his demand for post-up touches (and pouting when he didn’t get them) often short-changed the effective rebounding and shot-blocking he brought to the table. Now, he’s more mobile and springy than he’s been in years while filling a perfect role on a team that badly needs his size and athleticism in the second unit.

December 25, 2019; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (39) grabs a rebound against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard donned the cape during the Dec. 17 matchup against the host Indiana Pacers. Sans Anthony Davis, D12 needed to assist LeBron James in lifting the load. He turned back the clock just as Superman turned back time with 20 points on 10-for-10 shooting to go along with six rebounds and two blocks.

Superman continues concentrating his efforts on the defensive end, so far accumulating 1.5 Defensive WS through 37 games. Advanced metrics continue showing D12 some love with the league’s 6th highest defensive rating (100.6), which is second among bench players. (Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo leads all bench players with 100.2).

Howard still possesses good lateral quickness from the perimeter or top of the key to the baseline, swatting five balls during the Lakers’ record-setting Jan. 5 block party against the Detroit Pistons.

Things continue looking up. Howard’s contract has been fully guaranteed for the season. His teammates often comment how they appreciate his presence. (This time, it seems for real.)

And he is igniting a much-needed spark in Chicago’s All-Star Game’s Dunk Contest with youngster Ja Morant.

Howard’s prestigious career reached its nadir last year, but he rededicated himself to the game and teamwork, thereby providing an interesting sequel in the process.