Sixers

Persevering Has Preserved Dwight’s Rollercoaster Career

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Dwight Howard may have pulled off the greatest trick in recent NBA history.

The fall for a franchise player can be challenging. Father time and gravity are undefeated in taking down even the brightest stars, and Howard is no exception. If his bowling-ball shoulders aren’t enough of a clue, Howard was one of the most athletically gifted players since coming into the league in 2004.

Dwight isn’t that anymore. He hasn’t been for a very long time.

Perhaps it ended in Los Angeles (the first time), Houston, or the handful of other teams Dwight squatted with over the last few years. Either way, we all decided a long time ago that Howard was irrelevant.

That’s where reinvention comes in.

Sometimes, reinvention comes in the form of a change in your game. Perhaps the difference is technical. A game once relied on power and flight now embraces more threes and survives on guile.

Maybe the change is physical. A body once dependent on size and muscle fueled by animal meat changes to one more pliable, injury-proof, and driven by a plant-based diet. Other times, the difference is emotional, spiritual even, where a player can’t quantify impact into stats.

Amazingly, Howard made all of those changes. Dwight admitted that Doc was the only coach to call and recruit him in free agency. Doc saw something in him. His fun and cheerleading from the sidelines and veteran leadership have been a welcome addition to the team. Against all odds, Dwight became a culture guy.

The Impact on the Offense

When you have an MVP-caliber player as your starting center, the backup is even less of a concern than usual. When that player is Joel Embiid, who has missed nearly a quarter of the season due to injuries, the backup becomes a little more vital. Philadelphia does not need Dwight to replicate any part of Embiid’s game other than his defensive impact.

Despite not being an offensive threat — other than the occasional put-back and lob finish — Dwight contributes to the team philosophically when he replaces Embiid. He allows the Sixers to unlock different players on the team simply because he demands the ball far less than Embiid does.

Dwight will run in transition, get the ball out of his hands quickly whenever he touches it, and do all the dirty work necessary. He allows teammates who are more offensively inclined (e.g., Ben Simmons, Shake Milton, Tobias Harris) to be even more aggressive. While not ideal, it’s a different offense that’s still effective.

The Impact on Ben Simmons

Even more impressive than Dwight becoming a culture guy is him becoming a mentor. Ben Simmons speaks glowingly of Howard. Ben named Dwight, Embiid, Doc, and assistant coach Sam Cassell, among his luminaries this season.

When have you heard teammates speak of Dwight like that before?

Dwight has also been a public advocate of Simmons, going so far as to call Simmons a young LeBron. It’s not the comparison that’s important– it’s the public backing of Simmons, who fans often criticized in his young career for the things he doesn’t do well. Considering Simmons is having maybe his best overall season as a pro, Dwight has to be one reason.

Dwight has even been a salve of sorts in the Simmons-Embiid relationship. How many times has a teammate backed Simmons to the extent that Dwight has? Perhaps age, an experienced coaching staff, and a more symmetrical roster makeup are more significant contributors to Philadelphia harmony.

Those factors don’t take away that he has the proper role, at the right time, with the right temperament to be a positive in their relationship.

The Impact on the Playoffs

If the Sixers play well, Dwight won’t have much of an impact on the court in the playoffs. There aren’t many probable opponents that demand intense center play when Embiid sits. Even when he does, we may expect a little more Mike Scott to help spread the floor.

Still, there’s the Eastern Conference favorite in the Brooklyn Nets. For them, the Sixers will need as many different options as possible. Brooklyn’s three-best players all have Finals experience, while none of the Sixers’ three-best players have Conference Finals experience.

Perhaps it’s more of a default, media-hyped idea to think player x with Finals experiences has a significant yet intangible impact on an aspiring championship team. The idea would be unintelligent if we hadn’t seen Dwight’s contributions thus far this season, and it’s logical to think Doc recruited him for intangibles all along.

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Not Over

Howard’s contributions aren’t all through culture, as there’s still production here. 7+ PPG and 8+ RPG on over 60% shooting are excellent numbers for a backup center. Most people still see the technical fouls and the antics, and it seems like the same-old Dwight Howard.

That negative narrative masks a productive player. Dwight is an essential part of a championship team and was a necessary part of last year’s championship team. Like it or not, along with teammate Danny Green, he knows what it’s like to play in, lose, and win a final, which no other Sixers player can say.

If the Sixers pull it off, Dwight Howard deserves more than the thanks given to a backup. He deserves our appreciation.

It could have been over for him in Atlanta, Charlotte or Washington, but he’s persevered, and that’s worth appreciating. He didn’t let age or a decline in skills and reputation define him. Howard defined himself, and his transformation will have been complete with a championship. He will have completed the prestige and go from a hobbled journeyman to walking upright before our eyes.

After that, my guess is we’ll never see him again.

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About Matthieu Hertilus

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