Dwight Howard has followed LeBron James into the NBA, into infamy, and now, he hopes, to redemption.
The media and fans skewered Howard for his two year odyssey through free agency, making him persona non grata in the NBA world. Reclaiming his reputation as one of the NBA's funny guys, jokesters and light hearted players will be a long journey. Eventually, winning cures all things.
Howard hopes that will return him to the good-natured, fun-loving guy he was when he was one of the most popular and liked players in the league in Orlando. He told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports he hopes to follow LeBron James' path going from hero to villain to hero again with his fresh start in Houston:
He got hated for a lot of reasons. I was really, really happy when LeBron finally won. I was unhappy that it wasn't me up there, but I was glad to see him get through that whole thing.
"I knew exactly how he felt. People putting you down, saying bad things about your character, who you are as a person. It doesn't sit well with you. When you go out on the court, you want to show them, 'Hey, this isn't who I am.'
"Here's a guy who's a great basketball player. He did something that was for him, and he did it in front of the whole world. I realized then that our issues, our problems, our flaws are out there for the world to see. You can't run from it. We have to learn from our mistakes and move forward.
Winning and dominance certainly makes people forget about a lot of things. James played angry his first year in Miami and his team suffered. But he has truly blossomed and become even better in his second and third years in Miami. That was something previously thought unimaginable with how good James already was.
Everyone forgets that year and a half now where James was considered the most hated person in the league. That is, unless you live in Cleveland or Ohio. Most people jsut marvel at James now.
Howard has to do the same thing.
His year in Los Angeles was more or less a lost one with his injury hampering his return and his struggle to find his place in the lineup. He never quite dominated the game defensively as he did in Orlando. If Howard is healthy, he could quickly return to that status of being the elite big man in the league.
Howard also, like James, has to show improvement in his apparent weaknesses in his game. That means developing a low post game that is befitting of the dominant big man in the league. Maybe not Hakeem Olajuwon good, but certainly more serviceable than before. Howard's low post game is probably already better than most pundits think (he did finish second in MVP voting after averaging 22.9 points and 14.1 rebounds per game in 2011).
Winning will also cure everything.
Around Howard now is a team reminiscent of the 2009 team he helped guide to the Finals with one big exception: James Harden is the kind of player who can create offense and create easy opportunities for Howard. They should be able to easily play off each other and make the other one better.
Most importantly, Howard has to show that he is happy, content and settled. At least for a while.
James has shut everyone up about his impending free agency with titles — who would leave a team that has won two titles in three years with three trips to the Finals? Howard has to quiet the critics by committing to winning and winning in Houston.
The path for Howard's perception redemption has been laid.