Dwight Howard is still a victim of his own nightmare.
More than a half-year removed from the Orlando Magic and into his tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers, the big man is still condemned for almost two years worth of indecision and his ultimate choice to spurn the team that drafted him in favor of brighter lights.
Despite distancing himself from Orlando, Howard hasn't been able to escape the Dwightmare; to escape his past. He hasn't been able to move on. Not entirely.
Still tasked with determining his own future upon season's end, Howard has battled injuries, egos and a mangled public persona all year in an attempt to salvage his image and put the soap opera in Orlando behind him.
But it hasn't been enough. As he prepares for his first return to the Amway Center, the ill-effects of his season-long escapade have never seemed more daunting.
Orlando has not forgotten, and it sure as hell hasn't forgiven him (via Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel):
This is the only way to crystallize in Dwight Howard's mind what he probably has already figured out: That he made the most monumental mistake he could ever imagine when he left the only fanbase that will ever truly love him to become Kobe's designated sock puppet in Los Angeles.
Oh, sure, if anybody deserves to be booed Tuesday night, it is Dwight, whose arrogance and ego wrecked a franchise, cost people their jobs and ruined his legacy. He has belittled everybody who ever embraced him in Orlando—his fans, coach, GM, ownership, even his former teammates. But what good will booing do except maybe making you feel better for a few minutes? If you cheer him—really cheer him—it will make him feel rotten for the rest of his career.
It's not enough that Howard was berated to no end as he continued to waver in his loyalties last season —nor is it enough that seven months have passed since the drawn-out saga supposedly concluded. Howard is attempting to nurse a wound that just can't be healed.
The Magic faithful are never going to forgive him for what he did, for the way he left. And mainstream media will never let him forget about his previous transgressions. What happened in Orlando will be with him forever.
But that doesn't mean it has to haunt him forever.
Howard's image is not an irreparable one. If LeBron James can go from global villain to universally renowned, Howard can extricate himself from the shackles of his past. He just has to understand it's a process that must begin (and end) with the Lakers.
No one's asking Howard to verbally commit himself to purple and gold beyond this season. It's actually better if he doesn't. There's no way he can go back on his word (like he did in Orlando) if he doesn't offer any hints he'll eventually rescind.
Binding promises aren't needed for Howard to begin his path to reformation. He's been forthcoming about his intentions, and that's what matter most. Now.
Free agency will come and Howard will have the opportunity to entertain any number of possibilities like LeBron and Deron Williams before him. He'll listen to any and all offers (which will spur even more conjecture), as is his God-given right as a player on the open market.
Just know that it will be the Lakers he inevitably chooses. Not solely because they can offer him more money, and not merely because he thinks he looks good in yellow. But because not-so-deep down, he knows Los Angeles presents him with the best opportunity to win and move on from the antipathy of his past iniquities.
What most pundits fail to realize when they stand atop their soapboxes and verbally crucify a man they (including myself) don't entirely understand is that this is no longer just about winning—it's about playing in a fancier market.
Through their unforeseen trials and tribulations, the Lakers have afforded Howard the luxury of redemption. When (not if, but when) he re-signs with Los Angeles, he's not committing to a just front-runner; he's pledging to better the future of a franchise now shrouded in ambivalence.
The Lakers will always be favorites to a certain extent, but this season alone has tested their resolve as an organization and Howard's character as a player. Their collective struggles have humanized the entire situation.
There's no better way for Howard to discredit his naysayers than to do in Los Angeles what he wasn't willing to do (anymore) in Orlando: build something great.
Presently, the Lakers aren't "great." Far from it, in fact. Though their roster suggested otherwise at the beginning of the season, they're hardly a completed outfit. Defensive competency needs to be instilled, depth needs to be acquired and aggregated chemistry still needs to be established. There is work to be done.
By committing to such "work," Howard would move beyond the cowardly precedent that has been set for him; that he help set for himself.
Latching onto something average or mediocre (albeit expensive) and vowing to make it extraordinary is exactly what the Magic wanted from him but a year ago. It's also exactly what he tried to do for them for eight years.
Have we forgotten all that he actually did? That he took a seemingly pedestrian convocation to the NBA Finals in 2009? That he was the only player in the league to average a double-double in each of those eight seasons?
Begrime Howard as we might, he's still a superstar. He's still someone who has battled through injuries this season and remains the only player to be averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game. He's still someone who has floundered on the league's biggest stage at times, but has never vacillated in his commitment to winning.
He's still someone who has had to persevere.
Had Howard arrived in Hollywood and the going been as clement and jovial as Howard himself, the opportunity to mitigate the significance of his past wouldn't be as prevalent. He would have taken the easy way out and been resented more than he already is.
Howard has been forced to navigate a proverbial minefield, though, and in doing so, he can now negate the very parameters of his decision (indecision?).
What is the best way for Dwight Howard to restore his image?
He could leave this summer and seek out a more friendly environment, or he can do what he spent the better part of his career doing with the Magic; what he was no longer willing to do for them after last season.
He now needs to reclaim his fleeting image and render the past inconsequential.
"That chapter was closed when I got traded," Howard said of the Magic (via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times).
Except it wasn't. It can't be, not until he reinvents himself—which he can do by sticking with the Lakers.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.