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Is Dwight Howard on the Decline?

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Is Dwight Howard on the Decline?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard is the fart joke of NBA basketball players.

He's not hard to understand, sometimes comes on a little too strong for more refined audiences and is desirous of more attention than he deserves on merit.

Simple. Straightforward.

In contrast, figuring out where D12 is on his imaginary career arc is complicated. There are some who'd have you believe he's enjoying a renaissance since leaving the confines of an ill-fitting and ill-fated stay in Los Angeles.

Others point to his fall from "Peak Dwight" form as evidence he's headed down the slippery slope of decline.

So, which is it?

 

Major Slippage

If we take a broad view, there's little question Howard is nowhere near as impactful as he was a few years ago. He was an absolute monster in 2010-11, leading the league in individual defensive rating, defensive win shares and posting a career-high player efficiency rating of 26.1, per Basketball-Reference.com.

And in terms of his overall career, that phenomenal season wasn't an outlier. He'd been nearly as dominant in each of the previous three campaigns.

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

In 2013-14, Howard's PER is 21.7. He's averaging 19.7 points and 13.1 rebounds per 36 minutes, rates that are marginally lower than the figures he posted during his prime. He's still a difference-maker on defense, but isn't anything like he was three or four years ago.

Back then, it wasn't hard to find a knowledgeable pundit who could make the case for Howard as the league's second-best player. Just last year, Grantland's Zach Lowe mentioned the bygone era when D12 only saw the King when looking up the NBA ladder:

At the end of the 2010-11 season, LeBron James and Dwight Howard were the two best players in the NBA. James was the clear top dog, and it wasn’t all that close, but Howard had established himself as a legitimate MVP candidate and a monstrous two-way force with an increasingly polished post game.

He's not that guy anymore.

But is that really so surprising?

Not only is Howard in his 10th season, but he's also no longer lucky enough to have the perfect coach-system-environment storm he enjoyed in Orlando.

Stan Van Gundy is still the best, most demanding coach Howard has ever played for. And he toiled under SVG at a time when his physical skills allowed him to do virtually anything. Better still, Howard's ego wasn't yet so big he could ignore Van Gundy's prodding—at least until the end.

Howard has declined since his days with the Magic. That's no secret.

 

Minor Upticks

But in a narrower sense, Howard is actually on the upswing.

His numbers are marginally better this year than they were last season. Not enough to make us wonder about a return to prime form, but enough to validate speculation that his slow recovery from back surgery (and general dissatisfaction with his situation) prevented him from giving optimal effort in 2012-13.

Statistically, Howard hasn't declined since last year. He has improved.

Dwight Howard, Then and Now
Points/36 Rebs/36 PER Win Shares/48 FG% FT%
2012-13 17.1 12.5 19.4 .134 .578 .492
2013-14 19.7 13.1 21.6 .167 .581 .546

Basketball-Reference.com

Beyond the numbers, the Houston Rockets big man is making a bigger defensive impact because he's more mobile. And it certainly doesn't hurt that he's happier:

Per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, Howard attributes that happiness to improved health:

I’m just a lot healthier than I was last year. When you’re healthy you can do a lot more things on the floor. I don’t think people understood that. They looked at all the negative things that came out of Orlando that were brought to LA, not on my part. I’m healthier than I was last season and I’m having a lot of fun.

Despite the marginal improvement in his play, Howard has definitely lost something in the overall popularity department. Once beloved as the clown prince of basketball, the events of the past two years have left Howard looking more like a plain old clown.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The fans drove that point home by voting three other frontcourt players into the West's All-Star starting lineup ahead of him this year. After garnering over 922,000 votes in 2013, Howard dipped to just over 653,000 this time around.

You could attribute that to a delayed acceptance of his long-term decline, but the missing votes probably have more to do with the growing perception among fans that he's not actually all that likable. If we insist on viewing the All-Star Game as a popularity contest, it's fair to say fans simply don't like Howard as much anymore.

That's an altogether different type of decline than anything we've discussed about his on-court game, but it's no less real.

And for a player as obsessed with being loved, knowing attitudes toward him have turned toward the negative has to bother Howard.

 

A Delicate Balance

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Ultimately, Houston should be glad it got a version of Howard that was slightly better than the one the Lakers had to deal with. The Rockets can't reasonably expect him to ever approach his best days again, but he's not in danger of falling off a cliff.

If there's any concern over Howard taking a dive, it should come from his potential to grow dissatisfied with fans' negative feelings toward him. We saw how ugly things could get when Howard didn't feel appreciated in Orlando and Los Angeles.

Based on his track record, we shouldn't put any level of team-killing discontent past D12. He's a Grade-A professional when it comes to destroying a locker room with his attitude.

The Rockets will have to humor Dwight when he talks about himself among the league's best players, as he did over the All-Star break. They'll need to coddle him, give him space to vent and make sure not to overreact when he pouts.

Howard is far from a perfect player, and he's certainly not an easy guy to deal with. But his game is still valuable enough to make him worth the trouble. And who knows, maybe as he eventually comes to grips with the fact that he's not the same player he was in 2010, it'll be easier for fans and his team to "get" him.

You know, like a fart joke.

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