A Tribute to Dwight Howard, Fan Favorite
His greatest responsibility was vibe-checking
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My first instinct about the Dwight Howard signing was that Daryl Morey was doing it expressly to punish us. Well, not punish us, exactly -- but to get us to slow down a bit. After the draft-night magic of him turning Al Horford into Danny Green and Josh Richardson into Seth Curry -- two trades that look even better now than they did at the time -- plus plucking three Process Truster favs from the draft itself in Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe and Paul Reed, it seemed like Daryl was delivered to us just to pander to our every whim, to be perpetually at the beck and call of our mock drafts and trade machine designs. Then instead of pursuing our old buddy in Nerlens Noel for our backup center vacancy, he instead swooped in for Dwight Howard, a player it seemed that nobody had liked in a decade -- not even the team who just won the championship mostly with him at starting center. The message from Daryl to us seemed clear: Get the fuck off my dick.
A year later, and as with his last four free agency stops, Dwight Howard is gone, a one-and-done. Shams reports that he's agreed to rejoin the Lakers -- presumably a deal the Lakers also agreed to themselves this time, though given Dwight's history, perhaps best not to assume that as given until his name is actually signed on the line that is dotted. Yet while most Sixers fans would likely agree that it's for the best that Dwight not be installed as our long-term solution at the backup five, there won't be anyone offering to pay for his plane ticket to LAX this year, either. Against all odds, Dwight Howard not only turned into a reliable rotation guy for the Sixers, but a fan favorite -- one we might even be some degree of sorry to see go.
Boy did it start out even rockier than expected, though. Dwight proved palatable in the smallest of doses but any extended run spelled catastrophe, when we had to start him for an absent Joel it was like trying to play jazz with Sid Vicious on upright bass. His hands should've been registered as deadly weapons for how lethal they were to the Sixers' halfcourt offense. (I strongly suggested a Swear Jar for any Sixer who passed anything but an alley-oop pass directly above the hoop to Dwight; unclear if the idea was ever properly instituted.) I was yelling "OH, COME ON DWIGHT!" around my apartment at season's beginning like he was every Phillies reliever of the past two years at once. The frustration seemed to be insurmountable.
And then, he surmounted it. It was one of the strangest progressions I've ever seen: After a month or so of playing basketball with the polish of a rookie center who'd spent one year at UCONN, Dwight remembered (figured out?) how to catch the ball and hold onto it again. Suddenly, the rest of his game was unlocked -- he was an absolute terror on the glass, he could facilitate the offense at the elbows a little and then cause all sorts of problems diving hard to the rim, and every so often he'd unleash a dunk or a block that would turn the Wells Fargo Center into the Amway Arena of days long gone. He was a fantastic regular-season bludgeon, because rebuilding teams who were resting some or all of their actually NBA-bodied players didn't stand a chance against him; they'd bounce off him like he was an eighth grader playing against elementary school kids.
But what Dwight really loved to do -- what he really loved to do -- was annoy. I mean, he actually enjoyed it. Not since the halcyon days of Tyler Hansbrough and Reggie Evans had I seen a player who actively tried to draw technical fouls like Trae Young trying to scam his way to the free throw line; he'd hook arms, he'd shoulder bump, he'd invade your personal space like an unleashed and unchecked golden retriever. By the end of the quarter, one of you was getting tossed -- and it was usually Dwight, of course, since as good as he was at annoying opposing players, he was always 10 times more effective at annoying the dudes holding the whistles. Sometimes it mattered, but most of the time it didn't, and the laughs were usually worth it; Dwight getting the heave-ho against the Nuggets, vowing to do better, then getting booted before the second quarter the very next game against the Lakers remains one of the season's more indelible memories.
And while his greatest love as a Sixer was irritation, his greatest responsibility was vibe-checking. All season, he was the ringleader in the locker room, during the pre-game intros, on the bench, more concerned with whether or not we were Having Fun Yet than Chad Kroeger and Henry Pollard combined. This was who we were most scared about Dwight being -- the guy who'd tell a loud and unfunny joke and then make eye contact with everyone in the room to confirm whether or not they got it -- but turns out he was actually kinda charming at it, especially since his days of undercutting his public cheeriness with private grousing and behind-the-scenes egomania seemed to be well in the rearview. He'll certainly never have to buy another Frosty again in the city of Philadelphia; they let him in the back entrance at Wendy's now and just take him directly to the machine.
Naturally, it all came crashing down for Dwight Howard in the playoffs. He was actively destructive for most of the Hawks series, costing us possessions with dumb fouls, failing to provide any meaningful defensive resistance against Atlanta's pull-up shooters and mobile bigs, not even getting on the boards or to the line that much in the last few games. He couldn't play with Ben Simmons or Matisse Thybulle -- and he really couldn't play with both of them -- limiting our rotation flexibility and forcing some awkward feigns at smallball. But none of this was surprising; we knew from early in the regular season that Dwight was really just a regular-season force, and the Sixers would be in trouble if they didn't either develop or acquire a stretch five backup to Embiid. They didn't, and they were. That's on Doc and Daryl, not Dwight.
Now, Dwight's gone, and the options of what to do in his stead are unclear. They can pursue a new option in free agency -- SixersAdam suggests a Tony Bradley reunion, perhaps? -- or they can hope BBall Paul is ready to step into the role. Quitting while we were still mostly ahead with Dwight was almost certainly prudent, but he will be missed -- for his mop-up work, his cheerleading, even for that random time every 3-4 weeks when he'd decide to shoot a three. (5-20 total last year, still two more makes than You Know Who.) Still, his Philly legacy is secure, as the youngest 35-year-old to ever play for the Sixers, and possibly the greatest one-year player lease in Process history. And if Daryl wants to pull another seven-foot rabbit out of his hat again in this free agency period -- feel free to start whenever, my guy -- we'll try not to take it as such a personal affront this time.