Dwight Howard

In the four NBA seasons before this one, the Orlando Magic were much less interesting to me than a perennial 50-win team that made the Finals once and the Conference Finals another time should have been. I appreciated what they were trying to do with their strategy of surrounding the most dominant center in the league with three-point shooters — I just didn’t find it particularly engaging.

This season, everybody became very interested in the Magic because of the mystery surrounding the future of Dwight Howard in Orlando. While Dwight continued to waffle about his intentions and led on this organization and its fans, I came to his defense on this blog because I felt he had given this dysfunctional franchise enough of a chance to build a championship-level team around him. In light of Magic coach Stan Van Gundy’s explosive revelation earlier today that Dwight has lobbied management to fire Stan on multiple occasions, it’s apparent that I misjudged Dwight’s character.

(I never do this, but allow me to digress for a paragraph. Stan Van Gundy’s performance in this media scrum is an absolute masterpiece and I think somebody should invent an annual Stan Van Gundy Award for best performance in a sports media scrum. Nevermind that he probably obliterated whatever minute possibility the Magic had to compete for a championship this season. Hardly anyone believed that team had a realistic chance and I’m pretty sure Stan knows what’s up. After getting jobbed in Miami in 2006 — almost certainly because of Shaq — he clearly decided he wasn’t going to go out like that again. I won’t say his statements were good for the team, because they weren’t. But he stood up against Dwight’s two-faced act like only Stan Van can, and it was a magnificent thing to behold.)

What makes Dwight look so bad here isn’t merely the fact that he tried to get his coach fired. This kind of thing probably happens all the time and most NBA superstars have probably pulled this move at least once in their careers. The problem here is that Stan Van Gundy is well-liked, widely-respected, and generally considered to be one of the better coaches in the league. It’s a pretty safe bet that whoever replaces Stan in Orlando will be a downgrade. Dwight probably feels the same way that Shaq apparently felt about Stan — that he shouldn’t have to endure getting yelled at by this dumpy, sloppy-looking man who has never coached an NBA team to a championship.

Dwight pulled a power move that has now blown up in his face regardless of whether it eventually results in Stan’s dismissal as coach of the Magic. Stan will have no problem getting another NBA coaching job, and he most certainly knows this. Dwight might eventually make fans and media stop viewing him as a backstabbing, petulant, self-centered publicity whore, but that’s what he looks like right now. For somebody who desperately wants to be loved by the public, that’s gotta sting.

This brings us to the question I posed in the headline, which probably seems sensationalistic to some of you. But here’s the difference between LeBron’s actions surrounding “The Decision” and Dwight’s behavior in Orlando. While LeBron’s public image was definitely damaged more than Dwight’s has been, I maintain that there was at least something defensible about LeBron forming a “superteam” in Miami in an attempt to win multiple championships. He probably wasn’t close to winning a title in Cleveland, so he chose a path that he believed would allow him to achieve that goal. The way he went about it was a total bummer, but I’ve never felt like he had malicious intent.

With Dwight, it’s unclear if he actually cares all that much about winning a championship. It seems like he wants to be handled with kid gloves by the coaches and management of wherever he plays, and it appears he might be more interested in building his brand than winning titles. The fact that so many modern sports stars have apparently been brainwashed by their agents into considering themselves as brands first, and professional athletes second, is something that is increasingly wearying to fans.

The way that Dwight denied that he tried to get Stan fired only made him look worse. Nobody in their right mind believes him and who wants to root for a two-faced liar? If he had at least tried to convince us that he felt that way about Stan before but he’s since come around to making peace with him for the betterment of the team, most fans might have given him a pass. Instead, we witnessed his ongoing campaign to present a public image that is clearly at odds with his true personality.

Why are Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson so popular in spite of the fact that they’re obviously not particularly nice guys? Because we can take them at face value and they don’t try to hide their darkness from us. Dwight is more like Alex Rodriguez — they’ve both excelled at their sports, but their phoniness is repellent. Today, Stan Van Gundy decided he’d had enough and he wasn’t going to take it anymore, so he unmasked Dwight Howard and revealed his true self. It may not last, but for the moment, Dwight is the most hated player in the NBA.

Dwight tied his second-lowest scoring performance of the season with just eight points in 40 minutes in a 96-80 loss to the Knicks tonight. He probably won’t admit that the events from earlier today affected his performance on the court tonight, but none of us will believe that, either. Maybe Dwight will learn from A-Rod’s mistakes and start being real with us instead of continuing to try to sell a persona that nobody is buying, but I doubt it.