If Howard was to end his career now, he'd be remembered as an indecisive, self-serving, ring-chaser without any rings. Playing for three different teams in three seasons doesn't reflect well on a dominant big man and supposed superstar.
In fact, I've come to wonder if his self-imposed buffoonery would be tolerated as much if he played a more common position, like point guard or forward. All-Star talent at other positions aren't necessarily dime a dozen, but they are more frequent.
Dominant centers are a rarer commodity. Only a handful of players are equipped to play the 5, and even fewer of those are worthy being deemed stars. As a seven-time All-Star, Howard is most certainly a star and one of the best there currently is at his position.
Post-career reputations don't brown-nose that kind of standing, though. Stats matter and always will. But when all is said, done, wrapped and sealed, titles and leadership mean more than raw talent or unfulfilled potential.
There's something to be said about Howard's 2012-13 campaign.
Hampered by back and shoulder injuries, and constant questions regarding his future with the Los Angeles Lakers, he still earned an All-Star selection while posting averages of 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. In an "off year." Most other big men will kill for those numbers. His alleged regression would serve as their ascension.
Free-throw shooting remains his kryptonite, but that's true of so many others that it's almost sad. Poor shooting is a somewhat accepted weakness when you tower over just about everyone else.
Shaquille O'Neal, a four-time champion, three-time NBA Finals MVP and future Hall of Famer, was one of the greatest big men to ever play the game, in spite of his 52.7 percent showing from the foul line for his career. Though Howard hasn't converted more than 49.2 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe the past two seasons, his 57.7 percent career clip exceeds that of Shaq's and can be overlooked in the long haul.
Deficient foul shooting is one part of his game. Hack-a-Howard strategies are effective, and that's unfortunate. But he's still a powerful finisher, dominant rebounder and intimidating shot-blocker.
With nine seasons in the books, Howard enters his 10th with career marks of 18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Only six other players in league history notched at least 18, 12 and two, respectively, through their first nine years—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Elvin Hayes, Artis Gilmore and Hakeem Olajuwon. Or, four Hall of Famers and two surefire, future inductees.
Also, only Kareem and Hayes matched or surpassed Howard's total in all three categories, making him part of an exclusive club.
Matching the output of legends has never been a problem for him. Looking ahead, if he's able to sustain his high level of play,"off years" included, he'll go down as one of the most demonstrative bigs there ever was, ensuring that part of his legacy will be just fine.
Show Me the Rings
Zero. That's how many championships Howard has won. He's made one finals appearance (2009) but remains ringless.
The catch has always been that he hasn't had a talented enough supporting cast. Today, multiple superstars are needed to win titles, thanks to superteams cropping up like gold diggers at a men's 50-and-older yacht party.
Injuries and a lack of chemistry derailed what should have been a championship-caliber season, and Howard was provided with another excuse.
Since joining the Houston Rockets, Howard is out of explanations—all of them. Houston's core is healthy, young and he's playing alongside a top-10 star in James Harden. Most importantly, he handpicked them; it wasn't the other way around.
But is it perhaps too late? Too little to erase the last few years?
Maybe. There is still plenty to be revealed about the potential of Howard and his new team, so there's no way of truly telling. As he prepares for his 10th season, however, it's clear he still has significant inroads to make if he wishes to match the championship output of players he will forever be pitted against.
Shaq had two rings through nine seasons. Kareem had one, Duncan had three and Gilmore had one (ABA). Guys like David Robinson, Hayes and Olajuwon had none, just like Howard. But they were able to win later on. The Admiral and The Dream finished with two apiece, and Hayes grabbed one as well.
When talking legacy, rings matter. Even more so for Howard because he's jumped around so much in the prime of his career. Duncan, like Robinson, isn't going anywhere. Save for a lone season in Toronto, Olajuwon didn't either. And while Shaq and Kareem moved around, they, unlike Howard, won.
For him to be remembered as fondly as they are, for him to skirt the many self-imposed obstacles in his way, he has to win. Not just games—championships.
On the Wrong Path?
Moses Malone's name hasn't been dropped thus far. Not deliberately, but not sheepishly either.
Although he was another positionally dominant center—20.3 points and 12.2 rebounds for his career—with a championship to his name, he's overlooked in the very conversation we're holding.
Malone played for seven different teams during his 19-year NBA career. It wasn't until he landed with the Philadelphia 76ers did he win a title (1983). Still productive at the time, Malone took a backseat to Julius Erving, following his lead to a championship.
When he left Philly, it was a amidst torrents of controversy. Selfish acts such as deserting the team after sustaining an injury during the playoffs and discussing the possibility of a trade on television damaged his lasting reputation
Is he universally hated? Not even close. Much like Rebecca Black after she released an awful song about a day of the week I refuse to mention, he was briefly hated, then dismissed, even if subconsciously.
Howard is walking that same tightrope, already having forced his way out of Orlando only to abandon the Lakers shortly after. Now he's in Houston, riding Harden's coattails, no matter what the two may say.
It was Harden who carried the Rockets to the playoffs in 2013. Had he never been traded to Houston, Howard wouldn't be playing in Houston. That's a fact.
In 2012, before Harden was with the team, per NBA.com's David Aldridge, Howard was opposed to playing for the Rockets. He didn't suddenly change his mind randomly. Superman left Orlando, left Los Angeles to ride Harden's momentum towards a title.
The attainment of one doesn't mean it's a tainted achievement. LeBron James' titles won't have asterisks next to them; any ones secured by Howard in Houston (or anywhere else) won't either. Failing to win one, to doing what he arrived in Houston to do, though, will hurt him.
All the controversy, compounded by the absence of a title will leave him in danger of being overlooked. Of being a stat-hoarding, team-jumping, championship-seeking big man who wasn't ever quite good enough to win it all.
How Will We Remember Him?
Howard isn't Malone and likely never will be. Which is a good thing.
While he's bounced around quite a bit over the last three years, he's already proved he can yield the type of results fellow legendary big men can, that all great players have.
Of the 190 players in league history who were selected to at least three All-Star games during the first nine years of their careers, Howard ranks 28th in win shares (95.1). Ahead of Dwyane Wade (90.3), Malone (85.1), Hayes (84) and Kobe (81.7), among others. Aside from his foul shooting, there's no questioning his ability to win.
Saying the same of him as a leader is impossible right now. The way in which he left Orlando, and the circumstances under which he left Los Angeles, aren't indicative of a player who wants the responsibility that comes with being a superstar.
What must Dwight Howard do to go down as one of the greatest big men to ever play in the NBA?
That doesn't mean he's not a star or doesn't want that responsibility. LeBron was once in a similar situation, and while his legacy isn't secure (upcoming free agency, anyone?), he has put himself in a position to completely right what was once an ever-growing list of wrongs.
To finally say the same, Howard must do the same. He must win on the terms he calls his own; he must win in Houston.
"Nobody cared about what I did eight years ago, they want to know what I can do now, and it's the perfect team for me," Howard told USA Today's Sam Amick of joining the Rockets.
Years from now, that decision, the one to join Houston, will be what's looked at as the reason why Howard's career accomplishments are memorialized like all the greats or become something offhandedly mentioned in passing.
Legacies don't fall into line until after players retire, but Howard finds himself fighting for his in Houston.