Dwight Howard Running Out of Time to Rebuild Reputation

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 3, 2014

Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard (12) reacts during the first half in Game 2 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday, April 23, 2014, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

At some point during his prolonged escape from the Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard's Superman cape caught a snag.

Maybe it was during the awkward interview he shared with former coach Stan Van Gundy, or the trade demands he reportedly made after Van Gundy's dismissal. Perhaps it just got torn apart during his back surgery in April 2012.

For one reason or another, it never followed him to Hollywood for his one-year stint with the Los Angeles Lakers. Of course, L.A. already had its own superhero, and the locker room wasn't big enough to add a second.

The plan for Howard was to reunite with the garment in Texas. By signing with the Houston Rockets, he cost himself some $30 million on his contract (although the economic hit wasn't nearly as big as it sounds), but also thought he'd given himself a shot at championship contention.

And perhaps his only shot at saving his sullied name.

"You just got to win," Howard said before the start of the postseason, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "That's the only thing...You win, and winning cures all."

That miracle cure still eludes him. His Rockets crash-landed with a gut-punch 99-98 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers Friday night that stopped Houston's playoff run before it ever really started.

"It hurts," Howard said after the loss, via NBA.com's Kerry Eggers. "When you put everything you got on the floor and somebody hits you with a dagger like that, it's a tough pill to swallow."

On the surface, the dagger he's referencing is Damian Lillard's series-clinching buzzer-beating triple that closed both the contest and the curtains on Houston. The same shot that ran Howard's personal playoffs series victory drought to four long years:

Obviously, there have been circumstances beyond his control contributing to this run of postseason failures.

He had no help with the Magic in 2011 and missed their playoff appearance after going under the knife the following year. His lone postseason appearance with the Lakers came without Kobe Bryant (Achilles) and against the eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs.

It's a superstar's world, though, where achievements are only measured in rings. Valid explanations come off as excuses, particularly for someone with burnt bridges in his past and a box of matches still in his hand.

Victories equal validation, and that's why Howard chased both down to Houston.

HOUSTON - JULY 13:  Dwight Howard takes questions during a press conference introducing him as a Houston Rocket at the Toyota Center on July 13, 2013 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The sad part of this story is that the big man did in fact find his cape down in Texas, complete with a more mature look than it had before. His season was Superman special in his performance, his focus and even his attitude:

"Dwight has been huge," Rockets guard Jeremy Lin said after Houston's Game 5 win, via Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle. "His efficiency, everything he is doing. He is dominating...I can't even begin to tell you where we would be without him right now."

Howard was everything in the series Lin said he was and more. He averaged 26 points on 54.7 percent shooting, 13.7 rebounds (including 4.5 on the offensive end) and 2.8 blocks. His 109 defensive rating was four points lower than anyone on the team, via Basketball-Reference.

Yet, there will be no stories of redemption written about his performance. Reputations aren't salvaged in first-round exits, even ones that could (and should) be pinned on the players around him and not his shoulders:

Howard tried to play a leadership role for this team.

His defensive effort wasn't dictated by his offensive involvement. He set brick-wall screens, even if his rolls weren't rewarded with passes. He tried to bring his teammates together and gladly shared their bonding time with the world on his Instagram page.

He looked to maximize the play of those around him, but he couldn't change their identities. With everything on the table, Houston's lack of defensive competence on the perimeter torched this team in a way Howard was powerless to stop:

That won't get the all-world center off the hook, though. No matter how well he played, collectively this season will go down as a catastrophe.

"Going deeper in the playoffs in the playoffs is very important," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said before the start of the series, via Feigen. "For the organization, it's critical. We didn't put in all the work and all the moves to get James [Harden] and get Dwight and all the other key contributors just to get eliminated right away."

In other words, this loss was an organizational failure.

Team success plays an unnaturally large role in our evaluations of individuals, but that's just the grading scale we've used in professional sports, even more so in the NBA. Under that measure, everyone takes hit for this first-round flop.

What remains to be seen is the fallout from that failure.

ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that the Rockets are expected to pursue Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Love over the summer. The latter might not be available, though, and Anthony would add another sieve to a team just derailed by defensive breakdowns. As for Rondo, he might cost more than Houston is willing to pay (i.e., Chandler Parsons), and his ball dominance would be a curious fit since the Rockets already seem precariously short on superstar touches.

Maybe the Rockets won't aim for the stars, but expect them to seek external assistance from somewhere. Even though this was a 54-win team and the youngest group in the playoffs, Houston's under more immediate pressure to perform than you'd imagine.

Howard hears those deafening clock ticks more than anyone around him. At 28 years old, he's running out of chances to be the primary piece on a team that can have the type of success his reputation needs.

After gambling his future on Houston's championship potential, he desperately needs that bet to come through.

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 01:  Dwight Howard #12 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets walk across the court during the game against the Detroit Pistons at the Toyota Center on March 1, 2014 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

"If we win, then everything falls into place," Howard said, via Sam Amick of USA Today. "...All you have to do is win. When you win games, nobody can say anything. So that's the only thing I'm going do to."

Howard's played well enough to do just that. He looks so comfortable back in that Superman cape you almost forget how long he went without wearing it.

One prolonged postseason run from the big man, and perhaps all of his past sins will be washed away.

As he's learned during these cross-country travels, though, that type of playoff success isn't guaranteed to anyone—not even Superman 2.0.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.