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LeBron James' Image May Be the Biggest Winner in the Dwight Howard Trade

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LeBron James' Image May Be the Biggest Winner in the Dwight Howard Trade
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LeBron James went from one of the most beloved NBA players to one of the most scrutinized after leaving Cleveland for Miami in 2010. 

However, after a year of taking on the villain role, James was able to get back in his own skin this year, winning his first NBA championship, a Finals MVP Award, his third NBA MVP Award and an Olympic gold medal this year. 

And though it was "The Decision" that ignited the downward spiral of James' popularity among the masses, it could be Dwight Howard's indecision this past year that helps propel James back to fan favorability

Talks were abuzz at the beginning of the 2011-12 season about Howard wanting a trade from the Orlando Magic.  

In March, ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that within a matter of days, Howard said he would waive his early termination option—which could have otherwise allowed him to opt out of his contract—before deciding not to do so, only to then end up waiving it, ensuring that he would remain with the Magic through the 2012-13 season. 

However, even after waffling with his opt-out clause, Howard never agreed to sign an extension to stay past the 2012-13 season, leaving the Magic stuck between a rock and a hard place. Orlando was left deciding whether to keep Howard through next season and risk watching him walk away for nothing, or trade him for players and draft picks to help rebuild the franchise. 

Then in July, Broussard again reported on Howard, except this time it was on his demand to be traded. 

Howard dragged his team through the mud and claimed he wanted to be in Orlando before and after asking to be traded. He eventually wound up on the team that most outside of Los Angeles love to hate: the Lakers

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The timing of Howard's lack of commitment couldn't be more perfect for James, as he had the best year of his life. 

On top of the achievements mentioned earlier, James also recorded Team USA's first ever triple-double in Olympic play, became Team USA's all-time leading scorer and was named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team. 

Off the court, James proposed to his longtime girlfriend—and mother of his children—before the start of the 2011-12 season, tuned out the negativity that was being spewed about him, surrounded himself with only those who would challenge him and did a ton of soul searching in hopes of maturing and winning a championship, as Brian Windhorst of ESPN wrote about in June. 

And though James' move to Miami was undoubtedly ill-received, James never publicly said a word about leaving Cleveland during his tenure there.

He also made sure to fulfill his entire contract before eventually leaving as an unrestricted free agent—a move he had every right to make.

And it appears that his move has worked out quite well for him. 

James is a champion. James is a two-time gold medalist. James is a three-time NBA MVP. 

His performance over the past year has re-ignited the Michael Jordan comparisons.

He's matured, held himself accountable and finally shown that he can win when it matters.

James has even admitted he would change the way he handled his free agency two years ago.   

Small-market teams are having a harder time keeping their stars, so Howard's trade demands and switching of teams may move him to the top of the NBA's most hated list at a time when the current most hated—and former small-market betrayer—is proving his detractors wrong with his demeanor and play on the hardwood. 

As James heads into what may be the best stretch of his career, Howard's drama could be enough of a distraction to help James gain back some of the fans who stopped rooting for him two years ago.

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