Dwight Howard and the Mystery of Unfulfilled Greatness

Shaun TobackCorrespondent IApril 12, 2011

This man could be the most dominating athlete on the planet.
This man could be the most dominating athlete on the planet.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Dwight Howard calls himself Superman and with good reason. He is built like Adonis on steroids and possesses athletic gifts so otherworldly that they make you certain that somewhere, some Krypton-like planet is missing its homecoming king. Oh yeah, he’s also the best center in the NBA…and not by a little bit. The void between Howard and the Chris Bosh’s and Luis Scola’s of the basketball world is Grand Canyon-esque in its enormity. In many respects, he dwarfs his competition.

However, for everything that is great about Howard’s game–and there is plenty, there is something missing. It is appropriate to call him Superman, but in reality, his makeup is about 85 percent Superman, and 15 percent Clark Kent. It is this 15 percent that makes all the difference.

There have been many versions of “Baby Shaq”, or “Shaq 2.0” to enter the league since the NBA’s original Superman made his debut. Most of these players (Eddy Curry, Greg Oden) have drifted away on waves of expectations too high, skill levels too low or a combination of both. But Howard has been the exception, that rare player who entered the league followed by whispers of a second coming and wasn’t overtaken by them.

But as great as Howard may be, he is followed by the overwhelming sense that he could be greater. Watching Howard leaves you feeling like something intangible is missing from his makeup. This is a sentiment that is shared by fans who appreciate the truly rare, elite levels of intensity, athleticism and physical prowess that it takes to succeed in the NBA and from those who don’t appreciate the specifics of all that, but know a great wonder of the athletic world when they see one.

Even Dwight Howard fans, those who follow his career much more closely than I, don’t argue that we have seen the best he has to offer. Or anything close to it. And that is a shame.

For his career, Howard has averaged 18.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.2 blocks, and 1 steal, nothing to sneeze at. But watching Howard play leaves the viewer with the feeling that he should average 25, 15, 3, 3, and 1.5, while leading his team to multiple titles. It speaks even greater volumes about Howard’s potential that 28, 18, 3, 3, 1.5-2, and a Lakers-esque dynasty in Orlando seem possible.

As unlikely as these results are for most players, anyone who has seen the flashes of what Howard can be will tell you that they are not out of the realm of possibility. For most players, even the elite ones, numbers like this are reserved for NBA 2K’s “Rookie” setting. They are just not feasible. Glancing at Dwight Howard, they seem strangely reasonable.

But as important as stats are in sports, success is ultimately measured in rings. And no matter how many years of stellar stats Howard has put up, his efforts have not resulted in the team success like most of the greats. For transcendent players, individual success translates to team success. They get their stats because they put teams on their backs and refuse to lose. Howard’s stats are extremely impressive, but empty in this regard.

It is an odd feeling watching Dwight Howard, knowing that such normally unreachable goals are legitimately in play, yet also getting the sense that, for some reason that cannot be measured in metrics or statistics, he cannot get there.

Howard has the physical tools dominate the game in a way that only a few–Chamberlain, Russell, Jordan, Bird, Magic, Shaq and Kobe are the names that immediately come to mind –have been able to. These are the players for whom the game seems (or seemed) too easy, the players who dominated so totally and completely that it seemed, at times, as though they were playing a different game than their competition...to the point that it just didn’t seem fair. People should talk about Howard the same way they talked about Shaq or Jordan in their primes, as players who superseded the normal parameters of basketball and instantly elevated their teams to championship level. Yet no one talks about Howard in this way.

Instead, they talk about him in the same group as any number of All-Stars who have been unable to make that final leap to true transcendence. Guys who have it all, but can’t quite manage that extra little bit that puts it all together. Guys who, in the longview of the sport, haven’t really done anything.

The stories of Dwight Howard’s postseason performances are, in a way, a summation of his career. He has a knack for performing well, teetering on the verge of greatness before falling short at the last moment when his team is faced with talents like Shaq, Kobe or the Celtics teams of recent years.

In the face of true transcendence, Howard seems to continually come up just short enough to leave his team barely shy of the promised land. Eventually, there is little doubt that Howard will get there–most great athletes eventually do. However, it seems likely that he will need the help of another, more transcendent player to deliver him. It seems unlikely and incredibly strange that he cannot do it himself.

Dwight Howard is the basketball version of Nas. Someone who burst on the scene with gifts that were obviously rare . Expectations were sky-high and with good reason. But his overall production has left a lot to be desired. It is not that he has been bad by any stretch, it’s just that he hasn’t lived up to his full potential. Watching the career paths of these two immensely talented individuals leaves me with the same feeling my parents had when I got suspended from school in sixth grade–not angry, just disappointed. 

Nas could have been Tupac, but wasn’t and Howard could have been Shaq, but isn’t. They will both be remembered fondly as giants (literally in Howard’s case) in their fields, but ultimately, there will be a tinge of disappointment to their legacies, a sense of letdown that accompanies all of their achievements, great though they may be.

The possibility of even greater, next-level achievement from someone who is already a perennial all-star is what makes Howard so frustrating to follow. NBA fans don’t generally watch the game’s best players and think of their untapped potential. It just doesn’t happen. They operate at such a high level that it is impossible to imagine an even higher level being reached. But I think about untapped potential nearly every time I watch Howard play. He is great, yes. But looking at the level at which he dominates, and the ease with which he does so, it seems that he could be the greatest of all time.

Let me repeat that–Dwight Howard could be the greatest player of all time. Or at least one of them.

He plays in a time where, given his pure abilities and the position he plays, he should be dominating on a night-to-night basis in a way that only a few have been able to.  He has played in the NBA’s weaker conference at the sport’s weakest position. It is not only extremely difficult to find a great starting center in the NBA, it is nearly impossible.

Quick, after Howard who are the best three centers in the NBA? Al Horford? Pau Gasol? Chris Bosh? These players don’t hold a candle to Howard in terms of ability.

These days in the NBA, most dominant big men play power forward, where their quickness and athleticism can be fully displayed, while avoiding the physical toll taken on low-post players. Howard is one of the few true centers left in today’s game. The level of competition he plays against every night is considerably lower than it is at any other position.

For every Al Jefferson or even Joakim Noah, who present Howard with even a semi-legitimate physical challenge, there are five Zaza Pachulias or Darko Milicics, who most certainly do not. Howard should be exploiting this advantage, but all too often, he plays down to the level of his opposition, rather than rising above it.

There are games where we see this level of dominance from Howard. Earlier this season, he dropped 31 points and 21 rebounds on the Bucks. But in the scope of Howard’s career, these efforts are as remarkable for the consistency with which they fail to elevate his team as they are for the staggering nature of their dominance.

It is not surprising to anyone that he posted such ridiculous stats. It is surprising that he doesn’t do so with greater regularity. Howard is one of the few players in the NBA who can dominate a game from start to finish and leave you wondering why he and his team aren’t better.

Maybe part of my frustration with Howard comes from my own NBA demons. I am a Sacramento (soon to be Anaheim) Kings (soon to be Royals) fan. I’ve followed the team religiously for the last 20 years of my life and as such, the best and worst times of my basketball-viewing life are one and the same; the 2000-2004 period where the Kings were one of the NBA’s best, but couldn’t get over the hump into immortality. They couldn’t get there because the path was blocked by Shaquille O’Neal, who was playing on a level that was so high and was dominating so thoroughly that even the best-coached, most evenly-constructed team I’ve ever watched live could not overcome it. In the NBA, elite-level greatness can trump almost anything.

Watching Shaq and his Lakers destroy my NBA hopes and dreams wasn’t frustrating because the Kings were arguably a better team as a whole (although they were). It was maddening because he did it with ease. He smiled and laughed at the Kings, batting them away as if they were gnats buzzing around his ears. He was amused by them, annoyed but never legitimately scared. In his prime, he pushed NBA centers –legitimate 7'0", 230 lbs. behemoths–out of his way effortlessly.

These are men who are so gigantic and so athletically gifted that it is hard for fans to even conceive of them as real, actual human beings. But to Shaq, they were not even worthy of his full attention. They couldn’t possibly be. He was on a level so much higher than his competition that he could only look down on them–it was never possible to look them in the eye or view them as equals. And he knew it.

I bring this up not out of masochism, but because by all accounts, Dwight Howard should be on this level–viewing his competition with disdain, holding within him an intrinsic knowledge that they can never be on his level.  But there’s something different about Howard. Like Shaq, Howard laughs and smiles his way through the NBA, dominating as he goes.

But his laughter is not filled with derision, or a sense that he is simply above his competition like Shaq. His laughter is filled with…well, joy–that is to say, amusement of the wrong sort for a basketball player. Amusement not towards his competition, but towards the charmed nature of the life he leads. His smile on the court reveals a man who just can’t get over how much he loves his life and in some way, rightfully so, because his life is the stuff of dreams. But in the NBA, this attitude can only hurt his legacy. 

Call it what you want–an edge, a killer instinct or a will to win that has been turned to 11. Dwight Howard doesn’t have it. It is something you are either born with or you aren’t. When you are born with it, it is obvious, often to a fault. Off the court, Kobe Bryant may be a nice guy. He may smile and laugh and play with his kids. But on the court, he is a stone-cold killer. And he has no off switch.

This killer instinct, this unrelenting drive and win-at-all-costs mentality is what makes watching the all-time greats invigorating. There is something special about watching someone compete for whom failure simply is not an option. They will not lose, will not be denied and will not let another player steal the glory that is rightfully theirs.

Howard has had opportunities to demonstrate this quality and has not done so. Just like Kobe doesn’t have an off-switch for his drive, other players (including Howard) don’t have an on-switch for theirs. It is either something you are born with or something you are not. You don’t develop it over time.

What you do develop over time is game. And the players with makeups like Kobe and Jordan always strive to improve their game. They are always working, always developing. They feel younger generations nipping at their heels and refuse to be passed by.

Dwight Howard’s game has not improved in this way. He has gotten better, sure. But he has gotten better in a natural-progression kind of a way. A way that comes simply from increased comfort and knowledge of one’s own skill set and the league in which they play. He hasn’t shown that fire to consistently develop new post moves, or an elbow jumpshot, or improve his free throw shot. Howard has been in the NBA for years and hasn’t improved nearly as much as he could have if he were driven the way the legends are.

From a humanity perspective, it is probably better that Howard doesn’t have this quality–this insane drive and unending desire to improve. It makes him a nice guy, affable by all accounts, even on the court. But for a man striving for basketball immortality, not having it can turn a great player into merely a good one or, in Howard’s case, a potential all-time legend into merely a perennial all-star. Barring catastrophic injury, Howard will most certainly finish his career as a hall-of-famer. But he could be in the pantheon of greats.

I keep saying that untapped potential makes Howard frustrating to watch and it does. But more than evoking frustration, watching Howard makes me feel sad as a basketball fan. Sad for the game and sad, more selfishly, for myself. The opportunity to watch a transcendent athlete does not come along every day. This is the reason that every college prospect is labeled “the next ________”.

As fans, we want to watch transcendence. It is what makes watching sports unique and consistently interesting. Transcendent greatness can come at any time and when you see it, you are immediately aware that you are watching something special. When it happens, it is great for the game and greater for its fans. Dwight Howard could have provided this and doesn’t. Watching him feels like a missed opportunity on several levels.

For fans, Howard’s lack of fulfilled potential makes for a less entertaining product, which is disappointing, but ultimately all right. After all, we still have players like Kobe and Tim Duncan to watch–players whose greatness meets and sometimes exceeds their potentials. But for the NBA and the annals of the game itself, Howard is robbing history of one of the greats.

He is Bill Walton, except instead of having his legacy pre-empted by factors he cannot control, Howard is betraying his own legacy by not putting his head down, lowering his shoulders and plowing through the league. It’s not something that will keep fans up at night, but it is a shame nonetheless.

As it is, Howard seems on a career path similar to many Hall-of-Famers. All-Star games, All-NBA teams, fame and fortune have followed him.

Championship rings have not. And for the best basketball players in the world, championship rings are what separate them. They are the only yardstick that is used.

 For a man who should be remembered as a sports God, anything less than immortality is a travesty. I can only imagine that Michael Jordan, vaguely monitoring the NBA from a golf course somewhere in North Carolina, watches Dwight Howard and imagines what could have been. Howard could have been Tupac. Instead, he is Nas. He is great. Which would be fine, except for the fact that he could have been immortal. Dwight Howard promises us Superman, but for the most part, he delivers a much more human result. 


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