This could/should be a great story: Hometown guy, tears in his eyes, returns to lead a team and its surrounding city to glory. Sure enough, the hometown guy wept during his unveiling Wednesday. (Then again, Kent Bazemore wept, too, and he’s from Kelford, N.C., and has played here the past two seasons.) Friends and family and day campers cheered the hometown guy who’d grown up playing in the very gymnasium where everyone was gathered, and he thanked the Atlanta Hawks “for believing in me.”
Here’s the thing, though. The hometown guy is Dwight Howard, who hasn’t exactly led the world in sincerity.
He could have signed with the hometown Hawks three summers ago had he so desired. “It wasn’t the right time for either of us,” he said Wednesday, which was true, kind of: In 2013, Howard was still regarded as a great player and the Hawks were coming off a 44-38 season and working with a new coach. He was too good for them then.
He’s not too good for them now, and therein hangs a tale. From 2007 through 2011, he averaged 13.6 Win Shares per season. (Kobe Bryant averaged 12.3, which tells us what sort of company he was keeping.) Over the past four seasons, Howard has averaged 6.2. Al Horford, who just left for Boston, averaged 7.4.
Howard hasn’t averaged 20 points a game since 2011-2012, his final season with Orlando. He’s still a good (though no longer great) rebounder, and the Hawks, as we know, have been starved for rebounds. But that’s the only way he’d appear to fit. At 30, his offensive game is more rudimentary than, say, that of Karl-Anthony Towns, who’s 10 years younger. Howard scores only on dunks and follows. He made six – that’s correct, six – jump shots last season. His reputation as a defensive ace is in large part outdated.
Put simply, the Hawks didn’t bring Howard home because he was their Missing Piece. They bought him because they were afraid Horford would leave – even though Horford has denied it, Howard’s signing might well have hastened him down the wind – and because not many other teams wanted a guy who’s viewed as damaged goods and, even worse, a threat to do damage to his surroundings.
In an interview with ESPN’s Marc Stein, Howard said: “The one thing that just really I hate to hear with a passion is that I’m a cancer in the locker room and I’m a guy that wants to separate and divide a team. I’ve never been that way my whole life.” But why, then, is the man once considered the best center since Shaquille O’Neal about to work for his fourth franchise in five years?
As harsh as this sounds, it’s hard to take anything Howard says on its face. The folks in Orlando coined a word to describe his final years as a Magic man – Dwightmare. The Rockets, who signed him when he was the hottest free agent of 2013, weren’t overly interested in keeping him this time around. And then, not to put too fine a point on it, they ponied up $118 million to keep James Harden, with whom it’s believed Howard clashed.
Kobe Bryant and Mike D’Antoni didn’t warm to Howard in his one season with the Lakers. After Kevin McHale was fired early last season, the Rockets’ coaching job fell to J.B. Bickerstaff, who would later describe the team as “broken.” The NBA world will never forget the image of Stan Van Gundy speaking to the media about how Howard was lobbying to have him fired when the oblivious Dwightmare walked up and threw his arm around the coach’s shoulder.
That’s the guy the Hawks have brought home. It’s true that Mike Budenholzer and Howard seem to have bonded – this dates back to their meeting in L.A. in the summer of 2013 – but we’ll have to see if that lasts. And maybe this is making too much of one tiny moment, but during Wednesday’s festivities Budenholzer, who’s not a touchy-feely type, put his arm on Howard’s shoulder. The big man didn’t flash his famous smile. If anything, he appeared puzzled.
I really wish I could feel better about this. Contrary to popular belief, I’m human. I’m a sucker for a feel-good story – the Iceland players doing their Viking Clap after beating England is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen – but I don’t see a happy ending in Hotlanta. The Hawks might indeed believe in Dwight Howard. I do not.