Which Way Will He Go?
With the NBA Free-Agent hootenanny underway and Chris Paul having returned to the Los Angeles Clippers and noted racist Donald Sterling. There’s one huge fish left in the pond. His name? Dwight David Howard. Everyone wants him. The Los Angeles Lakers — the most decorated franchise in the league — have made every effort to try to get him to resign with them. The Houston Rockets used Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Motumbo, and Yao Ming to sway him. The Dallas Mavericks used Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Cuban’s buckets of money to make their own selling pitch.
Which leaves the Atlanta Hawks.
I warn you. This will not be an unbiased piece full of dispassionate prose. I am an Atlanta Hawks fan. I have worn this curse since I was young enough to become a Hawks fan by falling in love with Dominique Wilkins dunking in a Slam Dunk Contest against Michael Jordan. A dunk contest he lost and was clearly screwed out of. That’s when the pain began. The best player in the history of my franchise never played in a conference finals and was unceremoniously traded to the Clippers.
The only title we ever won was in another city, when my father was a teenager. This has not been a pleasurable existence. Yet, for the first time I can remember, there is hope. We are building towards a future that seems bright. We have a young point guard from Germany that everyone seems to like and a young Brazilian big man with a huge afro and equally huge potential. We have hope. And if Dwight Howard comes to the Hawks, that hope will die.
This may seem harsh and on a purely gut level, it probably is. Dwight Howard comes with conditions and strings. Some you see and many more you do not. He is great as a finishing piece — the person you need when you think you are close to a championship. However, I make no foolish promises about where my beloved Hawks are. We are not there. We are in a rebuild. Moreover, the last thing needed in a rebuild is to get distracted by a bright new shiny car in our garage and ignore the rotting floors in our living room. We’re in the middle of one of these.
First, let’s get this out of the way. No one knows who Howard is now. He could be the old destructive force he was in Orlando. Back in 2008, he took a team to the NBA finals who had no business being there. Minus Dwight, it’s a team scrapping and fighting for an 8th-place seed. However, since that magical Finals run, nothing has been the same. Orlando slowly fell apart in the haze of terrible contracts and decisions (trading for tissue-soft Vince Carter), a coach who was not used to success and the very real knowledge that Howard had started to decline. Ever since that 2008 Finals run, something changed in Howard. He began to believe he was Superman, and should be treated as the spiritual and physical heir to Shaq. That’s the best-case scenario for everyone, he simply needs to be reminded of what he can and cannot do.
The worst-case scenario, one which keeps talent evaluators up at night is what if he’s never the same person he was in Orlando? What if his back prevents him from being a force of nature again? What is he if that happens? Is he Larry Johnson — who reinvented himself into an all-around player from an explosive athlete — but found his production slowly declining until he was forced to retire? If he can’t dominate defensively like he’s capable, is the rest worth it?
At least for this year, he was not worth it. Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah were better than he was at doing his job, tougher too. Noah took a Bulls team who had no business whatsoever advancing to the second round based on out-marbling the Nets. Gasol helped lead the Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals. What do they both have in common? Egoless hustlers who care about the team first, second and third.
Which brings us all too seamlessly to that “rest of it”. Simply put, Howard is a magnet for controversy. I don’t think he wants to try to do some of, if not most of the things he does. Whether or not he means it, it keeps happening. First, it was the opt-in debacle. To hear him tell it, he was convinced opting in was the right idea so he could become a free agent. To hear others tell it, he made a decision which changed the arc of his career because he did not like how his mentions on Twitter were looking. What if he had stuck to his guns? Who knows? Would he have signed with the Nets — thus preventing Joe Johnson from going to Brooklyn? Would he have signed with Atlanta or Houston or Dallas? No one knows. First, he opts in. Then, he plays some role in getting the coach who was the best coach for him fired. Then, he denies getting that coach fired while at the same time going to the GM and asking for a trade.
The whole time this is going on, he is joking and laughing in muscle shirts like everything is honky-dory. Winners don’t do this. Champions don’t act this way. Let’s not even get into the soap-opera disaster which was this season in LA. Nothing the Lakers did seemed good enough. I’ll repeat this again so it sinks in. The Lakers could not make him happy. The Lakers of Wilt, West, Shaq, Kobe, Magic, Kareem and all everyone in between could not make this man-child happy. Sure, he got jobbed by getting himself into the Mike D’Antoni offense. However, paradoxically, his actual skills fit about as well as can be expected for an up-tempo offense. He runs the floor like a gazelle and can key a fast break with one block.
Finally, (I have made this point on Twitter) the Hawks have been in limbo for as long as I can remember. We’ve had the chance to get a transcendent player once in my living memory and we screwed it up. Other than that, we have been veterans of the 4-5 game in the NBA Playoffs. All of our playoff games are shown on NBA TV. Our arena is half-empty for pro basketball games. Every single time contraction is brought up, someone mentions the Hawks. We finally have the chance to be great instead of staying in limbo. All that has to happen is there has to be one great person. One who changes the franchise. Our Michael. Our Magic. Our Robinson. Our Duncan. Our LeBron (Miami version.)
Is Dwight Howard that person? There’s a chance, but it is a risk. And between you and me I’d prefer not to take risks when the future of my franchise is at stake.