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NBA Free Agency 2013: Is Dwight Howard the New LeBron James?

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COMMENTARY | No professional athlete in Los Angeles induces more anger than free agent big man Dwight Howard.

He's polarizing, controversial and to bring up his name among sports circles in Southern California more often than not invokes pure hatred.

LeBron James was once viewed the same way, and now the same court of public opinion that destroyed his reputation after he decided he'd try to have fun with his free agency in the summer of 2010 has done a 180 when it comes to its opinion of the reigning NBA and NBA Finals MVP.

Both James and Howard are athletic anomalies who have game-changing ability. James is without question the better player, but the big difference between the two as it stands today are two titles. The rings alone make James more folk hero than villain, when the same couldn't be said just a short while ago.

So how did Howard get to be the NBA's public enemy No. 1? It's been a long, unfortunate journey of circumstance and indecisiveness for the fun-loving kid from the South.

Holding Orlando hostage

The Dwightmare began in Central Florida with the Orlando Magic when he told the front office he wanted to spend the rest of his career there. That sentiment was short-lived, and he next asked to be traded to the New Jersey Nets, rescinded his request and asked for then-head-coach Stan Van Gundy to be fired.

Of course, Howard denied those accusations regarding the coach, doubled back on his trade demands and "committed" to the Magic by opting in for the final year of his contract in 2012-13.

Orlando, though, had seen enough volatility and cut bait, sending Howard to the Lakers via an offseason trade.

A short leash in Los Angeles

Howard came to Los Angeles with all of the fanfare expected of a basketball-crazed city used to winning. He was the missing piece to the puzzle, and the next great center in an organization known for producing them seemingly every decade.

He even had a day dedicated to him. That's how beloved he was before the season played out.

The season that followed was anything but a dream -- Howard played hurt, couldn't mesh with superstar Kobe Bryant or fit into new head coach Mike D'Antoni's system and suffered a shoulder injury that hampered his ability to perform at a level he was accustomed to. In the Lakers' first-round exit from the 2013 NBA playoffs, referees ejected him from the final game of a 4-0 series sweep against the San Antonio Spurs.

Lakers fans crushed him throughout the difficult season and especially afterward given the way he exited.

In their minds, he wasn't giving maximum effort. Yet somehow, he was the only player in the league to average at least 17 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots per game.

Did his critics forget that he was still nursing injuries to his back and shoulder?

To be fair, the purple-and-gold faithful went all-in on Dwight, but got burned when their dreams of glory were shattered by mediocrity and turmoil. It's understandable why they're bitter and projected their disdain onto him, even though the Lakers had a host of issues stemming from coaching to personnel unrelated to Howard.

Why the hate?

Howard likes to have fun on and off the floor. He was doing things that way when he won three consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2009 to 2011, and there was no reason to change who he was, even when things went south in Los Angeles.

For example, Bryant scowled his way to five NBA championships as an assassin. He groomed Lakers and NBA fans into thinking that only that type of attitude could win. That mentality gave the appearance that there was little-to-no effort when Howard would smile and behave like himself.

To a point, the perceived carefree attitude, especially after losses, could be misconstrued as poor effort, but the precedent he set in Orlando fueled the perception that Howard didn't care whether the Lakers won or lost, however unfair that assessment was.

There are no second chances when it comes to making a first impression, and Lakers' stakeholders knew the instability of Howard's thought process going into the Hollywood experiment. They were guarded then, and are without question even more so now as he entertains free agency.

The prospect of being spurned is inspiring more hatred from Laker nation, understandably so.

As frustrating as Howard is to deal with at times, he's still a top-tier center. SB Nation's lead writer Tom Ziller wrote an outstanding piece on why Howard is worth pursuing. Every point he makes is true -- the Lakers need Dwight Howard. The "don't let the door hit you on the way out," mantra is severely misguided and largely driven by emotion.

Howard's the best center in the league when he's right physically. Again, he put up great numbers while playing hurt. That seems lost on so many people. Can the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and the entire Lakers front office all be wrong?

Howard, like James, will have to win a title as a team's centerpiece in order to shed the hate. In Houston, he'll have an opportunity to win there early given the pieces they have in place with a young nucleus of James Harden and Chandler Parsons. LeBron needed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- and that was OK.

The new breed of NBA superstars want to play with one another, and as long as they win, how they got there doesn't matter. Howard could be the next beneficiary of such a scenario.

It's all part of the reality of the modern NBA and an example of the volatility of passionate fans. Winning absolved James, and it's the only way Howard can turn his reputation around.

For more on the Lakers and the NBA , catch up with this author on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets

Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA as a Southern California-based sports journalist and editor. He contributes to SB Nation in addition to Yahoo! Sports and is the Managing Editor and Founder of Sports Out West.

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