You won’t find mind many people stating Dwight Howard’s case for all-time greatness.
That may seem justified at first blush, but consider this: Howard led the League in rebounds five times from 2007-2013; receiving top-five voting consideration for MVP honors four times in that span. The Georgia native has a career PER (21.7) ranks 35th all-time in the NBA, and ranks ninth among active players with 113.2 career win shares.
Statistically speaking (to this point in his career), Howard ranks among Hall-of-Famers Patrick Ewing, Moses Malone and Wes Unseld. In Howard’s most recent seasons with the Rockets (considered lackluster by the eight-time All-Star’s standards), “Superman” still averaged a double-double and 1.6 blocks per game. Say what you will of his off-court drama and injury history, but Dwight Howard has remained a consistent on-court producer.
And yet, Howard’s blemishes remain a focal point of his legacy. In a now infamous press conference, Howard hugged Stan Van Gundy moments after the Magic coach implied Dwight wanted him fired.
Howard clashed frequently with Kobe Bryant in a fruitless one-year stint with the Lakers (Bryant and Howard exchanged pleasantries during a 2016 match-up).
Last season, Howard’s dreaded “uncoachable” label resurfaced with Kevin McHale. Dismissed following (what appeared to be) a clubhouse mutiny, McHale unloaded on Howard: labeling the 12-year-veteran “not what he used to be” as a low-post presence, while questioning his commitment to winning. Combining that with an underwhelming -0.04 Real Plus-Minus last year, many would disregard Howard as damaged goods.
The Atlanta Hawks, however, paid handsomely for Howard’s services; inking the big man to a three-year, $70.5 million pact. Now suiting up for his hometown team, Howard will headline a frontcourt including Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore. Whereas the 2015-16 Rockets endured a frustrating .500 campaign (eventually getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Golden State), Howard will be joining a team with momentum on its side.
The Hawks earned a 4-2 playoff series win over Boston last season, and feature a number of breakout-season candidates—including Dennis Schroder and first-round draft pick Taurean Prince.
Howard’s offensive capabilities frequently took a backseat to James Harden in Houston; under coach Mike Budenholzer, Dwight won’t be playing second fiddle to anyone. Considering the Hawks will enter 2017 without Al Horford and Jeff Teague (15.7 and 16 points averaged over the last three years, respectively), Howard will be relied upon to bring his offensive totals up from his disappointing 2016 season.
It’s natural to be skeptical of a bounce-back season for Howard. Needing a “change of scenery” is an overused idiom for professional athletes, and drama has seemed to follow Howard. If it’s any indication of future performance, however, Dwight’s tenure in Atlanta has begun with rave reviews. Teammates Kyle Korver and Mike Muscala have sung Howard’s praises as a leader, while Dwight delivered uncharacteristically measured comments regarding his new home in Atlanta.
“I was placed in situations that weren’t really the right situations for me,” Howard said. “But all that stuff, the only thing it did was mold me for the opportunity that I have now. All the good stuff and bad stuff, all the hardships I had to endure, all that stuff it really just made me a better person.”
Amidst blown opportunities, burned bridges, and an uncomfortable intervention from Charles Barkley, Howard still finds himself in position to succeed as the face of a franchise. If he enjoys a resurgent season with his hometown Hawks, Howard may add “two-time Eastern Conference champion” to his list of career achievements.
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2016-17—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.
Follow the entire #SLAMTop50 countdown.