The revamped Houston Rockets will take on the young and rebuilding Orlando Magic in preseason action on Wednesday night, marking Rockets center Dwight Howard's first visit to the Amway Center with his new team and his first trip back to his former stomping grounds since a dominant turn with the Los Angeles Lakers back in March (that, naturally, came with its own brand of nonsense).
It's only a preseason game, but it's still headline news when the once-beloved center comes back to a town that's long since stopped finding him especially charming. So Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel sat down with Howard to discuss all that's transpired for the 27-year-old big man over the past year, headlined, of course, by his move from the Lakers to the Rockets. In the process of a discussion about how the myriad changes he's experienced have affected him, though, Howard offered a pretty odd backward-looking comment about, of all things, his old number:
Howard said he was disappointed that, last February, after the Magic acquired Tobias Harris in a trade, the team granted Harris' request to wear No. 12, Howard's old number.
"I just think that despite whatever happened, there was a lot of things that I did and that we did as a team, and that number was special down there," Howard said. "And I was a little bit upset about that."
Since Howard is A) still playing and B) playing for another team, you'd figure Dwight would be looking less for a full-on retirement than for No. 12 to be sort of put on ice, similar to how Moses Malone's No. 2 wasn't officially retired by the Philadelphia 76ers, but has been taken out of circulation since he wore it. (Or, if you'd like a more recent example noted by Waiting for Next Year's Scott Sargent, how the Cleveland Cavaliers haven't had a No. 23 since the summer of 2010.)
In terms of on-court contributions, sure, you could make a case for the Magic eventually honoring the number Howard spent eight years wearing. He is, after all, the franchise's all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes played. He represented the Magic in six consecutive All-Star Games and won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards in a row. He led the team to five straight playoff appearances, including one NBA finals berth. There's a strong case to be made that he had the best Magic career of any player ever to suit up for the team; generally speaking, that sort of thing tends to get you recognized come the end of your career. (Provided, of course, everyone in the old town has stopped hating you by then.)
The end of your career, though. Not perpetual recognition mid-stream, and certainly not when this is the reason why Harris requested the number:
(Howard likely didn't know, and perhaps still doesn't know, that Harris wanted to wear No. 12 as a tribute to a close friend who had died of leukemia at 17 years old.)
You'd certainly hope he didn't, right? (For more on the backstory of Harris' relationship with his late friend and the No. 12, you should check out this March 2013 story by Newsday's Barbara Barker.)
Howard's displeasure at the Magic's willingness to grant another player his old number seven-plus months after he'd set out for California smacks of the precise sort of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too wishful thinking that's led so many people to become so frustrated by the center over the past three years. He can say, as he did to Robbins, that he's past the point of caring if everybody loves him, but comments like this call that into question — or perhaps just further clarify the lack of self-awareness that Howard's so often displayed in the past.
He wanted out of Orlando during the 2011 lockout, due in part to (very legitimate) concerns about the talent level and ceiling of the roster constructed by then-Magic general manager Otis Smith, but he didn't want to cop to it and be viewed as the bad guy. (That, clearly, worked out great.) He then elected to publicly deny the trade demand while privately continuing to push for a move, all but annihilating any goodwill he'd built up with Magic fans. He wanted out but didn't want to be hated, so he chose to opt into the final year of his contract ... but continued to eschew a long-term extension, still leaving that exit door open.
We all know what happened after that. There was Stan Van Gundy diming Dwight out and Howard qualifying his not-so-nice request; the Magic starting to implode and Howard succumbing to a back injury; Orlando canning both Van Gundy and Smith and Howard continuing to push for an exit; his eventual trade to the Lakers and his unceremonious exit following an incredibly disappointing season; his free-agent courtship and his eventual decision to join the Rockets, which was a sound on-court move made within the agreed-upon self-determinative state of free agency and is basically the only thing you can't really kill Dwight for in this whole saga. (Well, unless you're a Laker fan.)
And now that he's in Houston, with a new set of burned bridges and scorned fans between him and Orlando, he's all too happy to praise the Magic for moving on from him ("I would say they did some good things [...] Once those guys learn how to play the game and grow into their games, they'll be fine") ... while simultaneously grumbling about the Magic moving on from him. It's pretty much perfect, right in line with wanting to be the unquestioned top dog while also wanting two other max-level teammates.
Speaking of teammates, if anyone has cause to be upset by anything related to Howard's comments to Robbins, it's probably his new teammates, including fellow maxed-out All-Star James Harden (emphasis mine):
[Howard] thinks Houston has similar talent to the 2008-09 Magic squad he led to the NBA Finals.
On Tuesday, Howard compared Rockets small forward Chandler Parsons to Hedo Turkoglu and Rockets shooting guard James Harden to Courtney Lee but also added that Harden has more scoring ability. He compared Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley to Rafer Alston and Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin to Anthony Johnson.
With all due respect to Lee, who's been a fine-enough player for several teams over the course of his five-year NBA career, I wouldn't expect Harden to rush up to Dwight and thank him for the abundance of praise. Then again, I suppose it's not the most damning thing Howard's ever thought to say about his teammates.
Among the head-scratching comments, though, Howard did offer one statement that rang true — the sentiment that, like LeBron James before him in order to put the bad old past behind him, "All I've got to do is win now, and I'm in the right situation." That'd certainly help things. Some quiet time probably wouldn't hurt, either.
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