However you want to refer to him, the former first-round pick’s career has been delegitimized by those in the media, slandering his name rather than focusing on the impact he had in his prime. Fans and analysts alike continually harp on the fact that he failed to live up to his potential, with his career going off the rails after departing the Orlando Magic.
Although they are not wrong, they fail to look at the full picture. As a result, I will pose a question that is heavily discussed by those in the basketball world: Does the newly crowned NBA champion deserve to be inducted into the Hall of Fame? I believe he should, but this article will be more of an attempt to vindicate one of the greatest centers the game of basketball has ever seen, while using statistics to indirectly prove that he’s undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Most who have observed his career tend to be prisoners of the moment, no longer remembering the 19- year-old who burst onto the scene, but a player who’s been passed around the league like damaged goods since 2016.
Did he fail to live up to his potential? Absolutely. Was it his own doing? Somewhat. We’ll dive into those questions later on, but for now, let’s focus on the forgotten impact Howard had on the league.
To reiterate what was already said, the 2004-05 season was Howard’s rookie year, which saw him average 12 points and 10 rebounds per game. He played and started all 82 games. We see these statistics improve in his second season, averaging 15.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Moreover, it is worth noting the Orlando team he was joining was far from perfect, only able to win 21 games in the 2003-04 season. Furthermore, they had just lost All-Star Tracy McGrady. Howard had no help and was still able to put up these impressive numbers.
Confidence was also instilled in him by Orlando coach Brian Hill, who made it clear to the media that the only way this Magic team would succeed on the court would be through Howard emerging as a “force in the middle.”
The player Hill imagined Howard to be would continue shaping itself in the 2006-07 season. An excellent stat line of 17.6 points and 12.3 rebounds per game saw him receive his first NBA All-Star selection, while also guiding the Magic to the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, something the team had not done since the 2002-03 season. Although they would ultimately be swept by the Detroit Pistons in the first round, the team was beginning to return to a form they had not seen since “T-Mac” was in Orlando.
Clearly, we see that a team that revolved around Howard, and included a coach that believed in him — along with a system that suited him — would bring wins, improvement and make the team a legitimate contender in the future.
Continuing under the guidance of Coach Hill would prove to be beneficial for both Howard and the Magic organization. The 2007-08 season saw Orlando have the best season in quite some time, winning their first division title in 12 years and entering the playoffs as a third seed. Here, we see “Superman’s” numbers get absurd, averaging three 20-point/20-rebound games to help Orlando get past the Toronto Raptors in the first round. They would eventually fall to the Pistons in the second round, with Howard named All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive Second Team.
Four years after his rookie season, Howard would lead the team to their second straight Southeast Division title, entering the 2009 playoffs as a third seed once again. Throughout the regular season, he averaged an astonishing 20.6 points and 13.8 rebounds per game, leading the “Juice” to a 59-23 record. The first round of the postseason saw him record 24 points and 24 rebounds in Game 5 against the Philadelphia 76ers, giving the Magic a 3-2 series lead, which they would eventually close out in six games.
Despite clashing with Coach Stan Van Gundy about the number of touches he was getting in the second round, they would be able make amends and defeat the Boston Celtics in seven games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Lebron James led Cleveland Cavaliers. There, Howard would have a career-high 40 points along with 14 rebounds in Game 6, defeating the Cavaliers 4-2 to advance to the NBA finals for the first time since 1995.
Facing the Kobe Bryant led Los Angeles Lakers was going to be a difficult task, with a supporting cast that included Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Despite the Magic’s solid squad, which included Rashard Lewis, J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson and Tyronn Lue, Howard would still be relied on to carry the team on his back, grabbing 21 boards and a Finals record nine blocks in a Game 4 overtime loss to the Lakers.
Despite his heroics, the Magic lost the series 4-1. Howard became the youngest NBA Defensive Player of the Year, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team and to the All-NBA First Team as well.
The reason for recounting Howard’s time in Orlando is for the sole purpose of vindicating his career. The way in which he came onto the scene is something that has rarely been seen in players throughout the history of basketball. Moreover, reaching the NBA finals four years after his introduction to the league is rarely seen by young players. Finally, not only did he reach the finals, but he basically carried the team throughout all three rounds.
From 2009 to 2012, Howard never averaged less than 18 points per game or less than 13 rebounds per game. In fact, one of his best years in Orlando came in 2010-11, averaging 22.8 points and 14.1 rebounds per game. If this doesn’t clearly demonstrate the dominance in his prime, nothing else will. Without question, he was one of the best players in the league at that time and the best center in the world.
After this, his career began to take a turn for the worse, not because of his play on the court, but due to his antics off of it. It is disingenuous to say his problems with the Lakers were not entirely on the court, but it was more a clash of egos and an unwillingness to allow Bryant to be the main superstar on the team. Despite this, he still averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds in his first stint in Los Angeles.
In Houston, Atlanta and Charlotte, he still averaged a double-double. His worst play was definitely in Washington with the Wizards, averaging only 12.8 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game, averaging less than 10 rebounds per game for the first time in his career.
After being waived by the Memphis Grizzlies — and when all hope was lost — the LeBron James led Lakers picked him up for the veteran’s minimum, a risky move considering the toxic atmosphere he had created for teams since his first stint in Los Angeles. Mostly, this came from an unwillingness to accept the limited role that suited him at that point in his career.
Desperate for an NBA championship and a shot at reviving his career, he accepted this role and is now an NBA champion, averaging 7.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Hopefully, the excellent locker-room and on-court presence that Howard provided will allow us to remember how great and dominant he truly was in his prime, and even at the darkest stages of his career, managing to average a double-double (with Washington being the exception, of course).
Finally, I’ll leave you with this: 8x All Star, 8x All-NBA, 5x All-Defensive, 3x Defensive POY, 5x Rebounding Champ, 1x NBA Championship. There are few NBA players who could match such a resume; moreover, Howard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvin Hayes are the only players that have matched or exceeded an average of 17.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game through their first 14 campaigns.
If this doesn’t put him in the Hall of Fame, nothing will. So let’s do what’s right, and look at Howard throughout his whole career, rather than picking and choosing to please our personal agendas.