Dwight Howard playing the role to win title he couldn’t deliver to Orlando Magic

Dwight Howard has had a long journey. But he never forgot the feeling of coming close to winning a title with the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Dwight Howard has had a long journey. But he never forgot the feeling of coming close to winning a title with the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Dwight Howard has gone through a long journey since leaving the Orlando Magic. But he seemingly has found a title role with the Los Angeles Lakers.

There is a psychological battle in every playoff series.

Seeing the same face sand the same team, knowing them inside and out and everything they are going to do. It gets on a team’s nerves.

Finding a way to push through the frustration of seeing that pet play that worked so well in the course of a regular season that suddenly has a roadblock is what separates the champions from the pretenders.

Every player has to keep their composure. They have to be something of an irritant at times too. If they can find a way to get inside their opponents’ head focusing on the roadblock rather than the gameplan, that might be the little edge they needed.

Dwight Howard was the focus of every team’s efforts to get under his skin. He had a long history of picking up technical fouls and so every old guard player and every irritant was trying to get him angry.

Back in 2009 and 2010, there was no force like Dwight Howard. He was able to completely change games defensively with his presence. And when he wanted to crash the glass and with the 3-point shooters surrounding him, he was a force offensively.

Defenses knew to beat the Magic back then, they had to rattle Howard.

That was then. This is now.

Now there is a new center dominating in Nikola Jokic.

He is a new breed — able to shoot from the outside and pass the ball like a point guard. But there is still the same strategy to rattle him in his first Western Conference Finals.

Howard has gone from the star to the irritant. His job in this series is to try to throw off Jokic. His job is to make Jokic’s life hard.

This is the role Howard has to play to win a title. It has been a bumpy road to get there and learn how to do this. He still is learning how to do this, giving into some of his worse instincts at times. In many ways, Howard never completely matured or redefined his game and on-court demeanor.

But to win his first title, the one he could not bring to Orlando, Howard has become the Los Angeles Lakers’ irritant.

The height of his power

It is a stark contrast to where Dwight Howard was 10 years ago and how much he has had to change his game now.

Eleven years ago, Howard was sitting on the Magic’s bench watching Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate a title on his floor. He hoped he would be back there again.

He said he promised himself that if he ever got back in a position to win a title, he would do whatever it took to win it. He did not know as he watched his only Finals appearance to date end that he would not get back there so easily.

This was as close as he would get.

In Orlando, Howard was the focus. He was the engine and not a bit player.

A lot of people are thinking about those Magic teams again with a rematch of the 2009 Western Conference Finals taking place this year.

But the 2010 season was perhaps his and the Magic’s best year. He got closer to MVP and led the Magic to coast through the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Magic had a good time with all their eyes on the title.

Teams were lining up to try to figure out how to stop him. The Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Shaquille O’Neal that season hoping that his Orlando Magic predecessor would be able to slow him down. They never got the chance.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

There were players who tried to get under his skin all the time — Rasheed Wallace, Kendrick Perkins, Pau Gasol, Jason Collins, Zaza Pachulia all chief among his Magic irritants. Their jobs were to throw Howard off his game, get him to start chirping at the refs rather than back on defense.

Perkins and Wallace were on those Celtics teams. They dug at and pushed Howard around. They beat on him and played physical with him. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were chirping in the ears of everyone else.

These were master irritants.

Howard still got his numbers in that series. He averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in that six-game series. Orlando went down 3-0 in the series and it took Jameer Nelson’s heroics to force a Game 4. Howard still had a big game in series-extending games in Games 4 and 5.

But the Magic’s championship window closed quickly. Howard would never get that close to a title again — even with a talent-rich team in Los Angeles in his first run with the Los Angeles Lakers and a conference finals trip with the Houston Rockets later on in his career.

It seemed like they used every trick in the book to get at him and make his life hard. And now Howard is trying to do that to someone new.

Learning a new role

Like everything else, learning this new role has been a challenge. Dwight Howard nearly washed out of the league as he struggled with the sudden limitations of his body and a league that was quickly changing around him.

With the Los Angeles Lakers this year, he had taken on that role. He largely came off the bench, going back to his roots from his rookie year with the Magic. He rebounded, he ran the floor and he blocked shots.

Howard averaged a career-low 7.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in 18.9 minutes per game across 69 games this year. Yet, his career seemed resurrected. He fit into a role and played with energy. He has proven valuable in the playoffs too as a shot-blocker and game-changer off the bench.

In Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets, he scored 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting. This after not playing at all in the series with the Houston Rockets.

So now his role is to follow in those footsteps of the players who gave him so many problems when he was the focus of every game plan.

More from History

There Dwight Howard was trying to pull and push Nikola Jokic. He was doing all he could to get under his skin and keep the skilled big man from getting going. He was pushing and shoving, playing physically with him to knock him off his spot.

With Howard, though, everything seems to go overboard. Howard was trying too hard to be physical and, eventually, Jokic found his rhythm. Jokic drew him into a pair of critical fouls as Howard played overly aggressive and physical.

The Lakers took Howard out of the lineup and Jokic went on his scoring binge. He scored the final 12 points in the last 4:47 of the game to give the Nuggets the lead and close a six-point deficit. If not for Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beating shot, this would be a tied series.

Howard still has some work to do to play his role and get under Jokic’s skin — 30 points in Game 2 for Jokic. But still, Howard is closer than he has been since leaving the Magic to a title.

Schadenfreude or title?

Orlando Magic fans still have some hard feelings toward Dwight Howard.

Nobody in Orlando is big fans of the Lakers anyway. Nobody is likely to celebrate him finally winning a championship. Things ended poorly here.

And while there is at least a small movement of fans who want to bring Howard back for sentimental sake — and a belief he can recapture some of what made him one of the Magic’s best all-time players in a return — most fans probably are not ready to forgive and forget.

The franchise itself may not be ready for that yet. Not to mention, there does not seem to be much room for him in the rotation at the moment.

But Howard’s transformation into a role player and irritant is a lesson on how everyone has to pull together to win a championship.

To be successful at the highest levels it takes great players making great plays. But it also takes bench players doing their best to distract and get dirty to make everyone else look good.

It took Howard a long time to figure out how he could do that when the offense did not orbit around him. That is as much the story of his career as anything else.

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