When the Rockets signed Dwight Howard, much like every other organization that courted him that summer, we expected big things. Championships were well within our sights. A top 10 (top 20 if you're cynical) guy added to a roster with a budding superstar in James Harden? This team wasn't just fun anymore: it was dangerous. This wasn't just a hopeful fanbase, either. This was top-down expectation. This picture was taken on the day of his signing.
Every great living Rockets center (RIP Moses) surrounding Dwight Howard, extensively dwarfing him in comparison. Among our own giants, we expected him to be great.
Now that his time in Houston is (almost definitely) over, we're forced to ask: was he? He played three seasons alongside James Harden and an ever-shifting supporting cast, and I subsequently think there are three ways to remember Dwight.
You could remember him by his first season, also his inarguable best where he averaged 18 and 12 with almost 2 blocks per game. More importantly, he showed the hell up when the playoffs rolled around in a big way. With Harden struggling, Dwight played his best basketball in years against Portland. He never scored less than 22 points. He put up less than 14 rebounds only once. He was a monster, a sort of realization of this mythical creature that we had imagined in our minds. And we named that myth Playoff Dwight. And we were so damn pleased with ourselves.
If you remember him by his second season, you barely remember him at all. He played 41 games and his averages went down accordingly. The most memorable thing he did (besides fight Kobe Bryant on opening night) was ultra mega destroy all of the Mavericks' hopes and dreams with alley-oop after alley-oop from Josh Smith in the first round of the playoffs. Oh what a delight that was to watch.
I actually wrote our season recap for Dwight after his second season. I ended by talking about how Dwight would probably continue to regress, and that maybe that would be okay with such a talented roster. The last thing I said was, "I think the goal of 'Playoff Dwight' on a nightly basis is a good one, but I think a better goal would be to have any Dwight out there. Period."
Which brings me to the third way you can remember Dwight Howard in Houston. I was right. Howard did regress again this year, and to be fair it wasn't completely his fault. Firing McHale so early shook the very base of this team, and J.B. Bickerstaff's refusal to establish any sort of roles or coherent rotation certainly couldn't have helped.
Where I was just woefully wrong, though, was in asserting that having any Dwight on the floor would be a good thing. In fact, by the end of the season, I would argue it was the exact opposite. Call it ego. Call it different styles of play. I really don't care what it's called. When Dwight Howard was on the floor, the Rockets looked like elephants stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits.
Everything from offensive ball movement to defensive rotation slowed the hell down and it was painful, and agonizing, and frustrating. We couldn't afford to have him on the floor, but we were paying him so much damn money we had to play him.
This is how I assume we will remember Dwight Howard, just like the Lakers before us. He was a cancer in the locker room who turned general gameplay into blistering muck.
I don't know. Who is to say we don't make a run if Damian Lillard doesn't hit that shot in the Portland series? Dwight was the second best player on the only Rockets team that's been to the conference finals since the 1990s. And you can't completely blame this season on him. He didn't help, and he did hurt, but so did just about every single person in the organization.
I think I choose to remember Dwight Howard as he's pictured above, on the day he was signed. Not without fault, or with high expectations, but that he was the smallest amongst the Rockets great. With company like Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming, etc., is that really a knock on the guy's legacy?