Has Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard Now Become Underrated?

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIOctober 9, 2014

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Is it possible that Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard is now underrated? 

It's a hard concept to grasp, especially since Howard is only a year removed from being the top free agent on the market. However, the big man doesn't generate the buzz that he used to. Three years ago, he was all anyone wanted to talk about. 

At that time, the player known as "Superman" was more like "The Incredible Sulk." He spent most of the 2011-12 season trying to get then-head coach Stan Van Gundy fired as well as mope his way off the Orlando Magic

In August of 2012, he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-team deal. While the combination of Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash was supposed to turn the Lakers into an NBA megapower, the team flopped due to injuries and chemistry issues. After struggling to make the playoffs, they were quickly ousted in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.

After that disappointing season in L.A., Howard decided to sign a four-year, $88 million deal with Houston. His presence alongside shooting guard James Harden turned the team into a championship contender. However, much like in his previous stops, Howard couldn't get the job done as Houston was eliminated in the first round by the Portland Trail Blazers

That brings us to right now, where Howard may be the least talked-about superstar in the NBA. Despite being the most important player on one of the league's best teams, he is rarely mentioned in MVP discussions. After averaging 18.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game last season, Howard has become all but forgotten. 

Does that make him underrated? Maybe not in the traditional sense. In today's sports world, it's tough for any player of Howard's caliber to be considered underrated. However, he has become overlooked, and here are a few reasons why. 

The Drama May Be Over, But The Disdain Is Still There

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 5: Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets gets direction against the Orlando Magic during the game on March 5, 2014 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

A big reason why people are so drawn to soap operas or reality television is the overwhelming drama that is constantly on display. For two years, "The Dwightmare" was the best sports drama in town. As a result, Howard has become one of the most disliked athletes in America. 

Howard told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski during preseason last year that he "felt like the league's biggest villain" and that "he never liked it, and never will." When asked if he still felt that way now, Howard's response was "there are a lot of times I do, yes":

"People always want to see David win. They don't want to see Goliath do it. We're all humans. We want to be liked. We want people to enjoy who we are. I want peace. We're built to feel love, not hate. It's a tough situation for somebody like me, because I try to be so giving of myself. So, I'll try the best I can. For me now, the biggest thing is leading these guys on the team, being the best person I can be for this city."

In March, Dominic Alessi of TheRichest.com comprised a list of the 10 most hated athletes in sports. Howard ranked sixth, with Alessi comparing him to "a toddler that kicks and screams when things don't go his way."

While the drama from his time in Orlando and Los Angeles has subsided a little, the disdain is still there. Fans turned off by Howard's previous antics now dismiss him out of spite. It's like how you refuse to laugh when somebody you can't stand tells a funny joke. Howard has come a long way, but not far enough to earn the benefit of the doubt. 

Of course, winning is sports' greatest panacea, and time heals all wounds. After all, the city of Cleveland eventually welcomed back LeBron James four years after he left the Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. The same may hold true for Howard one day.

Until then, the people's refusal to put him on a pedestal will keep him under the radar.

He's No Longer "The Guy"

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 29:  Dwight Howard #12 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets pose during Houston Rockets Media Day on September 29, 2014 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usin
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Howard is the most important player on the Rockets. He's an elite rim protector on a team that lacked defensive presence prior to his arrival. He dominates the boards and gives Houston a proven scoring option in the paint. 

That being said, this is still James Harden's team. While he and Howard may be Nos. 1 and 1A from a talent perspective, Harden's rise from dynamic sixth man with the Oklahoma City Thunder to arguably the best shooting guard in the league has helped him overshadow his star teammate. 

When Howard signed with Houston last summer, he was joining Harden's team. It wasn't like it was in Los Angeles, when Howard garnered huge attention as potentially the next in a long line of great Lakers centers. It's different than his time in Orlando, where he was the No. 1 option and the team was built around his strengths. 

In Houston, the team is built around Harden, and Howard is one of those pieces. The offense still goes through "The Beard." He's the guy the team relies on in close games and crunch-time situations. 

As a result, Harden is perceived as the more important player while Howard has been reduced to more of a sidekick role. Need proof? In last season's MVP voting, Harden finished fifth. Howard, despite putting together a solid all-around season, didn't even register in the top 17. He was passed over by guys such as the Memphis Grizzlies' Mike Conley and the Phoenix Suns' Goran Dragic. 

Howard is the league's best center. Chicago Bulls' big man Joakim Noah may be able to match him defensively and on the glass, but Howard's offensive prowess gives him the edge. How does the league's best center not even register a blip in the MVP voting? 

In fact, Howard hasn't been seen as a contender for the league's top individual honor since the 2011-12 season, when he finished seventh. Part of that could be the fact that Howard's production has decreased slightly since having back surgery two years ago. It could also be backlash for the way things ended in Orlando. 

Still, without Howard manning the middle, the Rockets' already weak defense would have been even worse. As good as Omer Asik was defensively and on the boards in his first season as the Rockets' starting center, he isn't anywhere close to the kind of player that Howard is. 

The truth is, Howard will never be considered "the guy" until he wrestles the spot away from Harden or becomes a vital part in bringing a championship back to Houston. Or both. With Harden entrenched as the franchise player, Howard's star will continue to fade. 

Lack of Postseason Success

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 27: Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets battles for position against LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2014 at the M
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

The best way to keep yourself in the public eye is to win a championship. At the very least, you should help your team make some long postseason runs. Howard's last three trips to the playoffs have ended the same way: eliminated in the first round. 

It's hard to get the respect you deserve when your team keeps bowing out of the playoffs early. 

The last time Howard made it out of the tournament's opening round was during the 2009-10 season, when he carried the Magic to the Eastern Conference Finals. The team lost to the Boston Celtics in six games. The year before that, Howard led Orlando to the NBA Finals. 

Howard's career playoff numbers are staggering. He's shot 59.4 percent from the field while averaging 20.3 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. But the statistic that still stands out the most? Zero championships.

The lack of a ring and recent history of early exits have made it easy to forget about Howard. Who has time to keep tabs on D12 when Tim Duncan is busy winning his fifth championship at the age of 38?

In the time that has passed since Howard's last lengthy playoff run, many of the NBA's elite have pushed the big man to the back of the line. Guys like Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder's tandem of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have done more to grab our immediate attention. 

That doesn't even include recent champions such as Duncan and James or a rising star like the Indiana Pacers' Paul George. It certainly doesn't help that Howard isn't even the most famous player on his own team anymore. If the Rockets were to make an unlikely trip to the Finals, would Howard get the credit over Harden? Unlikely. 

Still, a championship run will go a long way toward returning Howard to glory, as Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote back in April: "For now, Howard remains in a weird limbo, neither universally revered nor universally reviled, inspiring as many shrugs as boos. Dwight Howard is still big, still dominant and still working feverishly to regain what was lost. All he has to do is win."

That sounds simple enough, right? 

So, Is Dwight Howard Underrated or Not?

In short, yes. Howard is underrated because while the attention has shifted to the league's other stars, he has continued to put up solid numbers. His 2013-14 campaign falls in line with his career averages (18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.2 blocks per game).

Yet Howard's name was nowhere to be found in the MVP voting. When's the last time the best player at his respective position wasn't considered a contender for the league's most prestigious individual award? 

Statistically, Howard has remained the same. He's an amazing physical specimen that dominates on both ends of the court. However, it's the perception of him that has changed.

While guys like Durant and James have made storied playoff runs, Howard has become a forgotten man. Two years after RantSports.com's Steven Resnick named him the second-most overrated player in the NBA, Howard has become overlooked. 

As with anything, winning changes everything. A strong run in the playoffs this season will put Howard right back where he belongs. Until then, he's the NBA's most surprisingly underrated player. 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

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