This time a year ago, Dwight Howard was seen in a favorable light in the court of public opinion. At that point, the hue of his MVP-caliber year during the 2010-2011 season (while also becoming the first player in NBA history to earn three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards) had yet faded away.
For Magic fans especially, Howard was nearly infallible in their eyes.
Even after it became public that Howard asked to be traded in early December of 2011 following a first-round flameout to the Atlanta Hawks in late April earlier that year, a request the Magic fan base openly feared but expected (and respected), the general consensus still was that Howard wasn’t in the wrong.
After the Orlando Magic came three wins shy of the NBA title in 2009, the franchise gradually de-evolved from a championship contender to an also-ran — thanks in large part to former general manager Otis Smith showcasing his incompetence by making bad draft picks, bad free agent signings, and bad trades. Howard’s supporting cast went from being an embarrassment of riches (Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass alternating as the 10th man in former head coach Stan Van Gundy’s rotation in 2010) to a flat-out embarrassment (The Gilbert Arenas Experience™ in 2011).
In other words, no one was blaming Howard for wanting to leave Orlando for a better situation.
Mindful of “The Decision” being a public relations disaster for LeBron James when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency to join the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010 and the intense backlash he received, it appeared Howard wouldn’t make the same mistake — he’s acutely aware of how people perceive him.
Then came “The Indecision.”
In the span of a few months, almost as well as a seasoned politician, Howard changed his position on his trade demands, his trade wish list, and most importantly, the opt-out clause in his contract. A clause which determined whether or not he would honor the full length of his contract after the 2012-2013 season or become a free agent one year sooner during the offseason after the 2011-2012 season. Once Howard was done torturing Magic fans with his indecisiveness (all the while not giving maximum effort in games with any sort of consistency) and agreed to waive the early termination option in his contract at the March 15 trade deadline, his reputation in tatters, he said the reason he chose to stay with the team for the time being was because he was loyal.
Just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, before the Magic fan base (and the rest of the NBA universe) had a chance to forgive and forget Howard for his actions and move forward, Van Gundy put the finishing touches on Howard’s damaged reputation by letting it be known a few weeks later in early April that Howard had informed management behind-the-scenes at a certain point in time that he wanted Van Gundy fired. It’s safe to say that Howard’s word carried as much weight as a flip-flopper in a political debate.
Howard was eventually traded from the Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-team deal in early August.
Fast-forward to today and Howard finds himself in a position not too dissimilar from James last year in many respects. Like James before him, Howard has a chance to rebuild his image.
James’ reputation as a player was at its lowest point when you factor in the after effects of “The Decision” and a disappointing performance in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. James, for all intents and purposes, was at a crossroads in his career. He was branded as immature and a choker, among other things. Yet he seemingly took a page out of Apple’s playbook in the early-2000s and underwent an extreme brand transformation.
In roughly a year’s time, James won the 2012 NBA MVP, 2012 NBA Finals MVP, and a gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He became the second player in NBA history, after Michael Jordan, to accomplish such a feat in the same calendar year. Winning cures all, yes, but it was how James did it — by becoming a back-to-the-basket player and finally fulfilling his potential — that saw his approval rating jump significantly after winning his first title while snagging his second gold medal for good measure. That and the way he carried himself on and off the court — with maturity.
The opportunity is there for Howard to follow James’ path.
Howard is playing on the most talented team he’s ever played for, teaming up with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. And with the Oklahoma City Thunder trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets, theoretically paving a bit of a smoother path on a rocky road for the Lakers to return to the Finals after a two-year hiatus, the stage is set for Howard to win back the public’s favor by winning (with L.A.’s early-season struggles, this is to be determined of course).
And being around guys like Bryant, Gasol, and Nash should help Howard grow and mature as a player and person. Before “The Indecision,” Howard was one of the more well-liked players in the NBA so it shouldn’t take him long to repair his reputation in that regard. Getting back to being the fun-loving, charismatic superstar he was in Orlando, while continuing to mature as a person, will give Howard an opportunity to win back the many fans he alienated.
For James, his road to redemption is complete. For Howard, it’s just beginning.
Eddy Rivera (@erivera7) is the editor-in-chief of Magic Basketball.