Orlando Magic Book of Basketball: Dwight Howard’s career went south because he lost joy in the game

The Orlando Magic's playoff defeat to the Atlanta Hawks in 2011 was the first time basketball did not look fun for Dwight Howard. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's playoff defeat to the Atlanta Hawks in 2011 was the first time basketball did not look fun for Dwight Howard. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Dwight Howard was supposed to lead the Orlando Magic to NBA titles. By letting basketball become serious, he lost it all.

The final image of the 2011 season saw Dwight Howard hunched over the scorer’s table at Philips Arena in Atlanta. J.J. Redick‘s shot to extend the series to a Game 7 back in Orlando fell no good. Two years removed from the NBA Finals, the Orlando Magic were going home in the first round.

To that point, it was probably the greatest failure of his career. The championship window was closing and everything with the organization was about to fall apart. They were a team on the decline.

It was all on Dwight Howard’s shoulders and everyone was coming for blood. The voices were only going to get louder, pulling the people pleaser apart in 20,000 different directions.

The league was about to go into a lockout that would delay the season until Christmas. Howard was a year away from free agency. The pressure was on everyone as the storm was beginning to gather around what would become the Dwight-mare. The first rumors of his discontent and departure were beginning to circulate.

Basketball was not merely hard work. It was a business. And the writing was on the wall for the Magic.

But more importantly for Howard, for the first time, he did not seem like he was having fun on the court. His whole persona was about joy — for better and for worse.

At the beginning of the 2009 Finals, Sports Illustrated ran a cover with Howard asking the question, “Too Much Fun: Can the Magic’s dunk machine get serious for a moment?”

Nothing probably distills Howard’s legacy and his peak quite like this. And it was this Finals and the failure he faced that probably started his downfall. The pressure got real for Howard and he never truly measured up.

Picking apart his game

Dwight Howard never lived up to the failure and all the pundits started asking questions that Howard never truly could answer.

This is the question that has dogged Howard’s career and legacy.

His prime is long gone now. He was on his last NBA legs when the Los Angeles Lakers gave him a lifeline. As Bill Simmons put it in The Book of Basketball 2.0 podcast discussing Howard’s career, he finally figured out how to be a follower. He finally accepted where his career has fallen.

And maybe that is what he should have been all along. He was a dominant force in the league who could not lead and could not make his teammates get over the hump to that ultimate prize.

Simmons ranks Dwight Howard No. 65 in his Basketball Pyramid — ahead of Robert Parish and behind Bernard King. Nobody questions Howard’s bona fides of making the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nobody questions his dominance for his time.

But Howard never fulfilled all that promise. And nobody seemed ready to let it down. He accomplished so much and yet it was never enough.

He got to the Finals in 2009, defeating LeBron JamesCleveland Cavaliers. But in that Finals series, he missed a pair of free throws that led to a major collapse in Game 4. The Magic were extremely close to winning a title, but still so very far away and Howard’s struggles were at the center.

The 2009 Finals was the first time Howard experienced true failure in the league. It was the first time when basketball was not fun.

He wanted to sit on the bench after that series in 2009 ended and absorb the pain of the loss. It was supposed to be a lesson for the young player — 23 years old at the time. But he would never get back to that mountaintop again.

And the national media started to ask why? They started to pick apart his game. The critics got louder.

Howard listens to the voices

Howard, by his nature, wanted everyone to like him. He was not a trained killer in that way. And it drove a lot of people mad.

He was not the guy to finish a game off. But he could step up his game when it mattered. He did so in Game 6 against the Cavaliers and again even in Game 4 of that Finals series until the end of that series.

Immaturity did have something to do with this. Howard could have a bit too much fun. And his sense of humor and knowing the time and place to be joking and when to be serious were always a bit off.

There is a reason there is a trail of bad reviews of Howard’s tenure going from his exit to Orlando to now. Especially when he was no longer the star player, it seemed like his schtick had worn thin.

But growing up did not necessarily mean Howard could not have fun on the court. It did not mean he needed to change who he was on the court. Like all great players, it is about channeling the energy in the right way and knowing the right time to use it.

Howard did not go into a shell after his first failure in the 2009 Finals. In fact, he only got better.

In 2010, he averaged 18.3 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game on his way to his second Defensive Player of the Year Award. But again, his team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. They had homecourt advantage against the Boston Celtics and fell short again.

In that series, Howard averaged 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. But it was not enough. He could not push his team to the next level. And the whispers and criticisms got louder.

Howard certainly heard all those criticisms entering the 2011 season. And he worked on his individual game.

His post-game was clunky and mechanical before then. But the 2011 season, saw him unleash a more refined game with moves and countermoves. He suddenly became an offensive juggernaut, capable of taking over games.

The 2011 season was his best individual season. All the greats — especially Shaquille O’Neal, whose criticism always seemed to be sharpest for Dwight Howard and cut the young big man more — asked him to have a postgame and be as dominant on offense as he was on defense. He went to train with Hakeem Olajuwon to add more to his game.

It honestly worked. Howard was brilliant that season individually.

He finished second in MVP voting with a strong argument he should have won the award over Derrick Rose. He averaged a career-high 22.9 points per game. He added 14.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game on his way to his third straight Defensive Player of the Year.

Howard was still a dominant force. The season saw him will the Magic to the 4-seed and score 27.0 points and 15.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Orlando lost the series in six not because of Howard’s efforts on the floor.

But still, something was missing.

Something Missing

The playoffs reveal a lot of character. They reveal the flaws in a lot of teams. They reveal flaws in the great players. And the question was always how they would respond.

Midway through the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals series, after falling behind 2-0, the Magic stopped their pregame dunk show. The team had to get serious for this moment. It was the first time basketball seemed more like a serious business than the fun Howard wanted.

Maybe the Magic should not have been yacking it up with trick dunks before games as they were that deep in the playoffs. But that is who this team was. Orlando got that series to six games because they were extremely talented and deserving of the 2-seed that season. But the team was never really the same.

From that point forward, the game was not fun for Howard.

More from History

Early in the 2011 season, he publicly called out teammates after a loss against the Portland Trail Blazers in which he scored 39 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. It was clear there was a rift between him and some teammates on that team.

When Orlando got home from that road trip, the team made two major trades that completely changed the makeup of the roster. The Magic went in fits and spurts the rest of the season to finish fourth.

Howard was not the one to lift the team up. He could dominate a game but never carry them fully on his broad shoulders.

In that time, he was so focused on posting up and the Magic so focused on appeasing him, that he lost other important elements to his game. He could dominate with his basic set of moves, but his best play was still to run toward the rim or use his speed to get by slower defenders.

Indeed the fun was gone by the time that 2011 season ended. Howard had tried hard to be what others wanted him to be. The voices demanded this from him or to be this kind of player. And it never quite fit his personality.

More painfully for Howard, it was not enough. His post-game was never as good as it was in 2011. Howard was never as good as he was in 2011 before or since. And people Howard wanted to respect him continued to criticize and lampoon him.

It seemed to Howard’s eye, he never could be what they wanted him to be. And he may have lost himself and what made him so dominant along the way.

Then he started to listen to other voices that pulled him apart. He could not please everybody in his life and so he ended up pleasing nobody as he played a final season in Orlando through gritted teeth and then left in the summer of 2012.

No Going Back

Maybe Simmons was right, Howard was never a leader. He was a brilliant player who was put in a role that his personality was not suited for. His talent was just so great he could get away with it.

After the 2011 season, Howard had become what everyone wanted him to be in so many ways, but it was not enough. They still criticized him and Howard could not block out the noise. He could not just be satisfied with his game as it was — dominant, powerful and impactful.

He stood on the floor after that series ended, clearly defeated and frustrated. It was rare to see Howard flash that big grin that infuriated so many but endeared him to Magic fans.

In Atlanta that night, there were at least a few people who believed this could be his last appearance in a Magic uniform. The team’s bright future and championship window started to look a whole lot more clouded. What came next was suddenly a huge mystery.

Howard seemingly changed that day. The seriousness of the journey to win a title finally weighed on him. The place he had known his entire career was not going to get him there.

Next. Dwight Howard defined the Orlando Magic's decade. dark

And maybe Howard lost a lot more.