- Israel Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer
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Dwight Howard has an image problem.
An image problem worsened significantly by a move to a new city.
A problem so evident that anyone with a platform to do so is assessing Howard's psyche and offering free advice on how to fix it.
Any of this sound familiar?
It was three years ago right around this time that LeBron James was called everything from a quitter to a loser to a coattail rider to much, much worse, particularly in and around Cleveland.
It has taken three years, two more MVP awards and two championships for LeBron to finally "repair" his image problem.
Howard's experience in the days since he chose to sign with the Houston Rockets rather than stay with the Los Angeles Lakers is beginning to feel eerily similar despite the fact Howard's actual decision-making process was almost free of controversy compared to LeBron's.
Heck, Howard even has a famed hip-hop artist trash-talking him, just as LeBron and the Miami Heat did. LeBron's issues were with Lil Wayne, for something as simple as not saying hello during a game in New Orleans in 2010. Howard's issue is with Ice Cube, who absolutely tore into the now-former Laker during a performance in Los Angeles on Sunday.
Apparently, we've learned nothing in the three years since LeBron's experience.
Instead, many of us are doing it again, analyzing a player and his history so that it matches the stained picture we have of him in our minds.
In Howard's case, his choice to leave Los Angeles supposedly confirms he can't handle pressure, either that of an NBA-crazed fan base or of a franchise with a history of championships anchored by big men.
His choice to leave an offense in which he was regularly a third or fourth option verifies that he's uncoachable.
His decision to not pair up with Kobe Bryant again substantiates the idea that he's soft and doesn't have the disposition of a champion.
Never mind that his one season in L.A. was an injury-riddled, mismanaged mess -- one in which he bore the brunt of the blame because, well, many of the other contributors had rings and/or MVP trophies to validate themselves.
Never mind that most knowledgeable basketball fans watched the Lakers and agreed that Howard wasn't utilized properly under Mike D'Antoni.
Never mind that Howard was still recovering from back surgery and had shoulder problems, only to play 80 games (including playoffs) -- two more than Bryant, 27 more than Pau Gasol and 28 more than Steve Nash.
And never mind that, like LeBron, Howard went to a team that has a better championship outlook than his previous team, both in the short term and long term.
This image problem of Howard's isn't a new experience. Just the latest one.
It's not as if Howard is free of fault here. He did provide plenty of ammunition for these attacks, particularly last season by openly complaining about his role in the offense. Getting ejected from his final game as a Laker didn't help, either.
And going back a season earlier, his beyond-awkward departure from Orlando made it easy to paint Howard as passive and having misguided priorities.
But this choice -- the move from an aging Lakers team with a questionable future to a younger Rockets team with promising prospects -- isn't an indictment of Howard's personality, his desire to win or his ability to play championship level basketball.
It was the wise move.
But he's being called a coward anyway.
Shaquille O'Neal predictably said the decision meant Howard couldn't handle the "pressure" that comes with playing in Los Angeles.
Jeff Van Gundy, more accurately, assumed it was the media criticism, which is far more in your face in Los Angeles than it was locally in Orlando -- or will be in Houston -- that scared off Howard.
"This guy's a great basketball player," Jeff Van Gundy said on ESPN's "Mike & Mike" on Monday. "I just don't think winning has been his top priority.
"And I don't think he loves the scrutiny that comes with a little bit more of a media market that's going to look at his flaws and pick at him. I think he's more comfortable in a more friendly media environment."
Well, let's be honest with ourselves. Who "loves" criticism? Who even likes it?
What, exactly, other than the extra $30 million [that the Lakers could have offered over other suitors], would've been the reason to pick L.A. over the other teams?
”-- Stan Van Gundy
Of course, it must have felt like an anvil fell on Howard's head every time he did something remotely wrong in Los Angeles, because he spent eight seasons in a much more insulated environment.
It probably felt that way for LeBron his first season in Miami, too.
What LeBron had, though, were allies. Within his own organization, LeBron was shielded from the outside nonsense as much as he could be, keeping him from reacting emotionally.
Howard, on the other hand, must've felt like he was being attacked from all angles, even from the inside.
Jabs from Kobe. Barbs from his head coach.
The unity that Howard longed for -- that he was jealous of the Clippers for having -- wasn't there. So Howard's immaturity got the best of him at times, most notably when he walked around the locker room after a loss telling folks to "look at the stat sheet."
Because, in his mind, he was playing through injury and pain. He was doing his part despite adjusting to an awkward role in D'Antoni's scheme.
Yet the criticism outweighed the praise by several tons.
His former coach, Stan Van Gundy, noticed it. Despite their strange breakup in Orlando, Howard and Stan Van Gundy actually have a good relationship now. They chat via text often, even during Howard's free-agency process.
"If you're going to go out and play with injuries, then you're going to subject yourself to criticism," Stan said. "I think that bothered him a lot. The thing that bothered him more than anything is people questioned his toughness and his desire to play.
"He led the league in rebounding. What did he do? The ball just came to him? A lot of it just doesn't add up."
Stan Van Gundy wasn't surprised at Shaq's comments, saying O'Neal is "unnaturally obsessed with Dwight." And he expected any Lakers fan to agree with Shaq.
"That story was written already," Stan said. "If he decided not to come back to L.A., that was going to be the story they wrote. Because for Laker fans, it's tough to admit the other side, which is, somebody could look at their team and see a team that's not going in a positive direction.
"What, exactly, other than the extra $30 million [that the Lakers could have offered over other suitors], would've been the reason to pick L.A. over the other teams?"
As for his brother Jeff's comments, Stan acknowledged the level of criticism is different in Orlando versus L.A. And the assertion that winning hasn't been Howard's top priority? Stan said if it's true, Howard's not alone.
"I hate to be real controversial, but I'm not sure that winning is the top priority for very many of the stars in this league," he said. "I think it's important to all of them, but as opposed to their numbers, their awards, their legacy, their endorsements, all that, I'm not sure winning is the top priority."
Until something makes it the top priority.
For Howard, maybe this is that something. This experience by which it seems no one outside of Houston believes he's championship material and that his legacy will forever be that of an indecisive, fun-loving, coach-killing, no-ring-having big man.
Because now that he's standing in 2010 LeBron's shoes, even Howard has to recognize that the only way to scrub the dirt off his reputation is to win a championship.
Even if it's an unfair requirement.
"If you want to be appreciated at a certain level as a player -- and I don't think this is fair, but it is this way with the fans and the media -- then you have to win a championship," Stan Van Gundy said. "I think that pressure, all of them start to feel it. It's one of the big reasons LeBron decided to team up with [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh."
And, much like Rockets coach Kevin McHale, Stan Van Gundy believes a 27-year-old Howard remains plenty capable of carrying a team to a championship level.
"You can limit him offensively, but to do it you have to give up other things, which is something Kevin McHale alluded to, and he was exactly right," Stan said. "When Dwight runs the floor or Dwight pick-and-rolls and shields in the paint, you either have to commit other people to him and give up shots to guys, or he's going to score … and there's nobody comparable on the defensive end of the floor.
"Let's just say, conservatively, at the worst, he's one of the 10 best players in the league."
That's an objective, intelligent assessment.
But right now, too many prefer the emotional evaluation. The one that has Howard facing the league's most significant image problem since July 2010.