When the surprise announcement came that Kevin Love and Blake Griffin had leapfrogged Dwight Howard to become All-Star Game starters this season — leaving the Rockets’ big man for the coaches to pick as a reserve — my first thought was “that’s a huge Lakers fans base that he pissed off.” They took their vote elsewhere (to Love, who Lakers fans think will be in their colors in a couple of years).
However, Howard’s issue bigger than just the Lakers — how he handled his exit from Orlando (trying to force a trade, then pulling back on that and waiving his opt-out, then forcing a trade again) followed by the injury-riddled disaster in Los Angeles last season has hurt Howard’s popularity everywhere. Howard’s demeanor of wanting to have fun can be spun as a guy not serious about winning or his craft (which isn’t really true), and that doesn’t sit well with fans.
You can see it in the number of All-Star votes Howard has gotten over the years, which were compiled by Jeff Caplan of NBA.com and he added some other notes.
Orlando, 2009: 3,150,181 (top overall vote-getter)
Orlando, 2010: 2,360,096 (third)
Orlando, 2011: 2,099,204 (second)
Orlando, 2012: 1,600,390 (first)
L.A. Lakers, 2013: 922,070 (eighth)
Houston, 2014: 653,318 (12th)
Howard’s 653,318 votes this year account for 10.2 percent of the total Western Conference “frontcourt” votes (the top 15 vote-getters the NBA releases). Last year his votes accounted for 15.6 percent of the total West “frontcourt votes. In 2009, when he was the overall leading vote-getter, he accounted for 19.6 percent of the Eastern Conference “frontcourt” vote (under the old format I used the top five vote-getters at “center” and the top 10 at “forward”).
There are other factors in play here, for sure. The biggie is the NBA removed the “center” designation on the ballot last season so fans didn’t have to vote for a center, they could vote for an undersized front line where LeBron James has to play center if they want (which the fans did this season, pairing LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George up front for the East).
Also, there are young stars on the rise in Western frontcourts — Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and others. They siphon votes away from Howard.
But obviously Howard’s popularity has taken a serious hit as well.
As I’ve said before, Howard can repair that image by winning — Kobe Bryant and LeBron also took serious PR hits in the past but in this country winning trumps that. Those two have largely re-written their image. It is the only model for Howard — and the Rockets are a good team, albeit one still trying to really find its identity. They are inconsistent right now, but should grow out of it (and there will be roster tweaks coming).
This is also why you suddenly see Howard back in the pool to play for Team USA, maybe at the World Championships this summer, maybe at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Howard has a gold medal from Beijing, but his image could use another one.
With some wins you’ll see Howard’s image change again, slowly. With that you could see changes in the All-Star voting. But the fan vote is a popularity contest and right now Howard is losing.