Praise, and an appraisal, for Dwight Howard

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Dwight Howard.jpgLet me start by saying that despite what Mike Bianchi’s headlines would have you believe, Dwight Howard is not as great, as valuable, or as dominant as LeBron James. No one is.

But that doesn’t mean that Dwight isn’t great, valuable, or dominant in his own right.

Dwight Howard is, without a doubt, the most dominant defender in the NBA today. He alters the game in ways both direct and indirect on a play-by-play basis, and he has such defensive presence that teams simply must account for him at all times. One of the calling cards of efficient offenses is scoring in the paint, but when a giant with rocket boots that can bench press a school bus and has an almost ideal level of athletic coordination is standing in your way? Well, that task is a bit more difficult.

The scariest thing of all, though, is that Dwight hasn’t maxed out on his defensive potential. He can still improve his footwork, his perimeter skills, his judgment. He’s sniffing greatness as a defensive monster, and he’s only getting started. That’s frightening.

While Dwight may still live in LeBron’s shadow (who doesn’t?), he’s also the victim of a bit of an artificial hierarchy. Since the day LeBron James walked into the league, he was dubbed “the second coming.” His rise to greatness seemed preordained, and while no one could have truly anticipated the beast that LeBron has become, the narrative structure was already in place for James to rule the world by the tender age of 25. That’s where he is now, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.

As a consumer of the NBA product and the ever-growing hype machine, I have no qualms in saying that the predictions bordering on prophecy that have accompanied James’ career have made his story that much more interesting. The things he does on the court have seriously altered what we thought was possible, and though that may qualify as more revolutionary than myth-affirming, it doesn’t change the fact that LeBron is just about everything we’d hoped he be from a basketball standpoint.

But by the very nature of those predictions, LeBron must come first and all others must come second. It’s the side effect of feeding into LeBron-mania; all the other great players who happen to play at the same time as James may be good, but they’re not LeBron. When considering everything that James has done in his stay in the NBA thus far, is that standard even fair?

Hardly. But it’s the reality that great players — yes, great players — like Dwight Howard have to live with.

I’m not convinced that LeBron’s impact on the court is so far and above Dwight’s that they aren’t even in the same league. Far from it. James is the indisputable ’09-’10 MVP in my eyes, but that doesn’t mean Howard isn’t important, or great, or dominant. It just means that at this stage, LeBron is better. What’s important for Dwight is not that he’s the best player in basketball today, but simply that he’s making the best of his own unique talents. That’s what’s going to win games (and playoff series’) for the Magic, and that’s what, when all is said and done, will finally earn Dwight the praise he deserves.