There comes a time when smiles and jokes no longer conceal the absence of a championship. When overpowering mass goes up against reality and loses. When makeshift excuses are nonexistent.
For Dwight Howard, that time has officially come.
Through nine years, there has been no championship. Superman has reached the NBA Finals once and made it out of the second round twice, but a championship has proved elusive.
Players like Carmelo Anthony are railroaded for their postseason failures. Howard has yet to join those ranks in part because he carried an unimpressive Orlando Magic squad to the NBA Finals in 2009.
For so long, he has been able to seek refuge in that season. His teammates were never good enough, the Magic rarely spent enough, and when they did, it was on the wrong players. Nothing Howard did would win a title in Orlando.
At his own behest, and after more than a year of protracted posturing, Howard was dealt from the small-market Magic to the storied Los Angeles Lakers. The thing is, Kobe Bryant's Lakers weren't his first choice; the Brooklyn Nets were.
Playing for a franchise that wasn't atop his list of preferred destinations was another excuse. Fans and pundits could bemoan his play and the end result all they wanted; the onus for this failed experiment wasn't on Howard's shoulders.
He wasn't brought to Los Angeles because he thought he wanted to win a title there; the Lakers brought him in because they thought he could bring them a title. Because they thought he would fall in love with the bright lights and rich history.
Play time's over.
The Architect of His Own Destiny
People didn't have to agree with the way Howard left the Lakers, or with the fact that he left them at all. Leaving was his contractually given right.
Before this past summer, Howard had never experienced the rush of free agency, and the begging, pleading and luxurious courting that comes with it. That much was, and remains, on him.
He didn't have to sign an extension with the Magic in 2007, nor was he held at gunpoint and forced to waive his early termination option in 2012. Also, those Lakers still made his list of desired landing spots. That the Nets were his first choice doesn't nullify Los Angeles' appearance altogether.
Still, the unconditional freedom to choose where he would play was never at his fingertips. Almost a decade into his career, he never had that type of power.
Then suddenly, he did.
The Lakers' dismal season mercifully ended, the Miami Heat won their second straight NBA title, and free agency made mincemeat of the calendar. Once the dust settled, Howard was holding a Rockets jersey, beaming with satisfaction.
"It means a lot to me just to have a fresh start and have an opportunity to write my own story," Howard said after his deal with the Rockets became official, as quoted by the Associated Press (via ESPN). "I don't think people understood the fact that I got traded to L.A., and now I had a chance to really choose my own destiny, and this is the place where I chose and I'm happy about it."
Finally operating within an environment he chose, Houston is Howard's home. Harden and Chandler Parsons are his companions. The Rockets are now his team, an organization he handpicked and, according to USA Today's Sam Amick, never doubted:
There was no (thought of), 'Oh man, hold up, let me think about this again.' The night before, when I had decided, I sat down with everybody – my agent, my best friend who was there, and my bodyguard, and we talked. I said this is where I want to go. I told my Dad that this is where I want to go.
Howard wasn't drafted by Houston like he was Orlando. Houston didn't choose him the way Los Angeles did; he chose the Rockets.
Controlling your own fate can be gratifying. Nothing beats that moment when you realize your roommate or significant other has left the room, and you're free to watch Pretty Little Liars while sipping pink lemonade without being derided.
But self-made decisions have consequences. Someone could walk in on you watching PLL after you decide to use the batteries in your remote as the source of power for your lightsaber, and Howard's decision to join the Rockets could blow up in his face.
Point being, there is no turning back for Howard. He is no longer shielded from expectations by a legion of excuses. There is no escaping or dancing around this decision.
This is what he wanted. There is only embracing and subsequently making the most of it, no matter what that entails.
Father Time Is Coming For Him
Howard isn't getting any younger, and his family tree indicates he isn't related to the Tucks from Tuck Everlasting. Gregg Popovich doesn't let him drink from the San Antonio Spurs' Fountain of Youth-flavored juice boxes either.
This shouldn't come as news to any of us. Howard, 27, has already come to grips, per Amick, with knowing one day soon, someone will hold the door open for him, say "Here ya go, wrinkles" and really mean it:
A lot of people say, 'Well, if you would've waited a couple years, then this could've been yours (with the Lakers),' And I'm like, 'In a couple years, I'm 30.' I don't want to wait. I've been in the league 10 years. I don't want to wait for things to happen. I want to be aggressive, to make things happen. And I'm looking at all these young guys who are just ready, and they're missing one piece. And I'm like, 'I could be that piece, and I don't want to miss my chance.'
Never mind that the decision to play for the Rockets was his—at least it should've been his—and his alone. Had he somehow wound up with the Charlotte Bobcats against his will, this still would've been his "chance."
Superman is in the prime of his career. Unlike Betty White, his golden years are coming before he qualifies for discounted pantsuits and denture cleaner.
After multiple brushes with injury last season, Howard also understands the value of being healthy and how durability and explosion can prove fleeting regardless of age, according to NBA.com's Fran Blinebury:
As you know, health is very important, not just to basketball players, but everyday life. For me, being healthy is gonna bring back a lot of the things I’ve been able to do in the past. I’m very excited about that. I think my health is coming back. I’m getting some of the bounce back in my legs.
He can laugh and play the part of a prankster all he wants. Unless you play for Tom Thibodeau you're a proponent of misery, basketball is supposed to be fun.
NBA careers don't span a lifetime. If Howard wanted a job with a longer shelf life, he should've tried his hand at golf. Or fueled the rise of professional bounce-house jumping.
He chose basketball, much like he chose the Rockets. Take the team out of the equation, and all that changes is his locale; his state of existence remains the same.
Right now is Howard's time. His time to dominate, time to smile. Time to win.
Time he's never going to get back.
Down for the Count
Personas can only withstand so much negative publicity.
LeBron James redeemed himself after betraying the Cleveland Cavaliers, but only after he won a title with the Heat. Prior to 2011-12, he was still depicted as a sniveling, woe-is-me, my-wallet-is-too-small and my-gold-shoes-are-too-tight prima donna.
Then came the ring, which changed everything.
LeBron was still considered a ring-chaser, but he was a ring-chaser with a ring. Procuring that piece of hardware brought about a shift in public perception more valuable than the championship itself.
The world was bearing witness to a smarter LeBron, a more seasoned LeBron. He wasn't the same player who abandoned Cleveland in 2010; he was a champion. Now he's a two-time champion on the verge of forming a dynasty.
Things wouldn't be the same if LeBron's fingers remained naked. They'd be even worse if he jumped a second ship for a third still ringless, like Howard did. The damage would be irreparable.
Howard has reached that point. There is still time to salvage what's left of the fun-loving, oversized man-child the general population fell in love with not too long ago, but not much.
Failing to make the most of this situation, the one he orchestrated, will be the crushing blow he can't recover from—the equivalent of a title-less Anthony joining the Lakers next summer and then still failing to win one before he retires.
Stakes are even higher considering Howard has placed himself within a system similar to that of the Lakers. Harden is a ball-dominating volume scorer like Kobe, and Omer Asik inhabits the same space as Howard, just like Pau Gasol.
It's even worse when you consider Asik will force Howard to play some power forward and Jeremy Lin isn't nearly the shooter Nash is. The former is shooting almost 43 percent from behind the arc for his career; the latter has never hit 34 percent for an entire season.
On paper, the Rockets are younger, faster and better equipped to cater to Howard's every off-court need—so, they don't have Kobe.
Once he steps on the floor, there are no such guarantees.
He traded ambiguity in Los Angeles for ambivalence in Houston, believing the Rockets ultimately offered the better chance to win. That somehow they would be the ideal team, the perfect situation.
"Nobody cared about what I did eight years ago," Howard explained, via Amick, "they want to know what I can do now, and it's the perfect team for me."
For his career's sake, he better hope he's right.