There are no more excuses for Dwight Howard.
His surgically repaired back is (presumably) healthy now, nearly a year-and-a-half after the initial injury knocked him out of action. He no longer has the specter of free agency hanging over his head, with the "Dwightmare" in his rearview mirror. He's chosen his new team, the Houston Rockets, and, as a result, is surrounded by the sort of young talent (James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin), creative coaching (Kevin McHale) and smart management (Daryl Morey) that he needs to succeed.
He's supposedly learned his lessons—that you can't please everyone, that you have to do what's best for yourself, that you don't have much if you don't have your health first—and is ready to proceed accordingly.
I said, "You know what? People are going to hate me for whatever reason, so I can't allow that to stop me from making my decision." I thought that my decision took a lot of guts because everybody's saying, "How could you leave the Lakers and six billion fans?" But I don't care about being an outcast or about being somebody that may look bad. All I've got to do is win now, and I'm in the right situation.
Whether that situation is already ripe for a Larry O'Brien Trophy is another story entirely.
Expecting Howard to deliver on that in Year 1 may be a bit much to ask. For one, Dwight still has to get acclimated to his new teammates, new system and new city. Howard hasn't even had three weeks of practice with the Rockets, a significant portion of whose preseason has been spent in the Philippines and Taiwan. The dynamic between Howard and Harden remains a work-in-progress, and it could stay that way for some time.
Houston has plenty more to sort out, as well. There's the battle for the starting point guard gig, led by Linsanity and Patrick Beverley. There's the vacancy at power forward, which has thus far been filled by the unproven Terrence Jones.
And then, there's the not-so-small matter of Houston's league-average defense, which just won't cut it for a title contender.
Especially given the depth of competition in both conferences. The Miami Heat are the odds-on favorites to extend their run to a three-peat, with the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks giving chase in the Eastern Conference.
Out West, the Rockets will have to contend with no fewer than five fantastic teams: the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. The former three return with their rosters and top-notch defenses largely in tact, while the latter two made major moves over the summer to improve themselves across the board.
Will all of this being said, Dwight will be under the gun to lift Houston to a championship from the get-go, and rightfully so. That's what happens when you screw up your own attempt to leave the Orlando Magic and throw your teammates under the bus in the process. That's what happens when you whine and complain through a chaotic campaign with the Lakers, and then turn down an opportunity (and a more lucrative contract) to move forward with the NBA's marquee franchise.
To his credit, Howard seems well aware of his past follies, third-person references included (via The Orlando Sentinel):
Everybody's saying I was a "coward" for leaving [the Lakers], and I knew I was going to get that. But I think with the situation, I had to do what was best for Dwight.
I know when I wanted to leave Orlando, and I decided to stay, I wasn't happy on the inside. I wanted to please everybody else and ended up hurting a lot of people by doing it the way I did. So this time, it's like I had a second chance.
On his bungled exit from Orlando, Howard added:
...I'm happy everything happened the way it happened. Even though I got hurt in the process and I had to go through a tough time, it made me a better person. I'm more mature now. I know how to handle situations different than I did back then.
Which team will be the best in the West in 2013-14?
The Rockets had better hope that's the case. They've come too far to give up who they are: a championship-caliber team on a mission to make it to the top.
Not that Houston need be concerned about Howard souring this time around. He's made his own bed. The onus is on him to get comfortable in it.
By all accounts, he is. We'll see if the situation stays that way for Howard, though, once the games actually mean something. We'll see how comfortable he is with his more mature self and his hand-picked circumstances when the honeymoon's over, the team hits its first rough patch(es) and all eyes and ears turn to Dwight for answers. We'll see how he handles having the weight of the world on his meaty shoulders then.
Because that's what happens when you're supposed to be one of the three to five best basketball players on the planet (when healthy). When you come to a playoff team that's already replete with talent, your arrival should portend a leap up the standings and into title contention.
That wasn't the case in L.A., where the Lakers dropped from a strong No. 3 seed in 2012 to a tenuous No. 7 in 2013, despite adding the most impactful pivot of his generation. Of course, Howard wasn't healthy, nor was the very environment that contributed to the Lakers' surprising demise.
Even so, it's incumbent upon Howard to prove once again that he's a force for good in the NBA. It's up to him to bury two years of controversy and catastrophe, not with his words but with his deeds. Fair or unfair, it's on him to transform Houston's defense into an elite unit and, in turn, to carry the Rockets to heights they haven't seen in nearly two decades, when Hakeem Olajuwon was on the tail end of his prime.
That's what's expected of great players, especially ones who become nuisances within the public sports discourse, as Howard was for so long.
And that's what happens when the excuses are no more, when all that's left is personal responsibility.
The Dwightmare may be over, but the fun has just begun on Twitter!