HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The smile looked genuine.
For the first time in nearly two years, Dwight Howard‘s smile looked like the real thing and not the forced teeth sucking he’s had to do with people and cameras in his face from Orlando to Los Angeles and all parts in between.
If it’s the new environment, as Howard was officially introduced as a member of the Houston Rockets earlier today, so be it. But something tells me he’d have worn that same smile anywhere, so long as it wasn’t Los Angeles.
Much has been made of his unhappiness while wearing a Lakers uniform, while playing alongside Kobe Bryant and for Mike D’Antoni. There is no need to rehash it now, not on the day that Howard finally looked relieved enough to crack that mile-wide smile of his for real.
For all of the people who have felt the need to smash Howard for the way he’s handled things, everything from the way he waffled his way out of Orlando to his unease during his season with the Lakers to his stint as the most coveted free agent since LeBron James leading up to The Decision, he deserves this moment. And I say that after having taken plenty of shots at Howard and his process myself.
But if Houston is where is the heart is and playing alongside James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin, and for Kevin McHale, is what gets his juices flowing, then more power to him. NBA careers don’t last long enough for elite players to play under any extra stress.
Howard knows his championship clock is ticking after nine seasons in the league and just his one appearance in The Finals. He’s fully aware that his third stop has to produce some hardware or he’s in danger of wearing the label as a underachiever, something most of the great big men before him shed at one time or another during their playing days.
He’ll have all the resources you could ask for in Houston. General Manager Daryl Morey is an innovator and fearless. He’ll do whatever it takes to make sure Howard’s current surroundings are conducive to winning at the highest level. McHale has championship experience that should prove to be invaluable for a post player trying to refine his game and continue to hone his craft at this stage of his career. Harden is a budding star who will take on the late-game, big-shot pressure that Howard has struggled with throughout his career. And Parsons and Lin lead a supporting cast willing to do whatever is needed to make sure the Rockets’ biggest stars have a drama-free work environment.
It’s up to Howard now. He can’t blame his franchise, the front office, coach, teammates or anyone else for his shortcomings on the floor. The Rockets made a commitment to him that he must now reciprocate in the form of turning back the clock and playing the dominant force he was as recently as three years ago.
I know it seems like an eternity to some of you, but the man averaged 23 points, 14 rebounds and 2.4 blocks as recently as three years ago. We’re not talking about some fading star who’s seen his best days. Howard is just 27 and he’s only begun what should be the prime of his career.
He’s smiling because he knows that, because he realizes that this “fresh start” he’s getting in Houston could serve as the spark he needs to shake off the past two years and return to his rightful place as the best and most dominant big man in the league, not only in the eyes of a few, but in the eyes of everyone.
No words will convince the masses, though. Only actions will suffice.
That smile, the genuine one, is a start.
But it’s only the beginning.
The heavy lifting is on the way.