You already know how the Washington Wizards-Dwight Howard partnership should end: with underachieving, covert drama and a nasty divorce. That is the most likely scenario, given the Wizards’ locker room and leadership issues and Howard’s quarrelsome career descent. There is little use betting on optimism when doom appears so dominant.
In this case, cynicism is a shield. To expect a happy ending requires a concerning amount of willful ignorance. It is best to be prepared. Nevertheless, Howard will play at least one season in D.C., and the results are pending, and sports have a funny habit of defying plans and expectations. So even as they approach a season of doubt, the Wizards and Howard have a chance to change the outlook. Both should consider it a last chance. And both should acknowledge the negativity swarming around them and do something about it rather than try to ignore it and make breathless declarations of grandeur.
You know what intrigues me about this marriage? It is one of convenience because of all the inconvenience the Wizards and Howard have created for themselves. They are united by past shortcomings, by need and by a ticking clock. The Wizards, who are projected to be a repeat luxury tax payer next season, could not have used their $5.3 million mid-level salary cap exception on a more productive player. They needed an inside presence at a bargain after trading Marcin Gortat, and they found one. They needed a little more marquee power, and Howard provides an ounce of that, even though he is a fading star who, if used too much, will look like a fossil in today’s game. With a team that has made four playoff appearances in five years but fell to the No. 8 seed last season, this run with Howard should be the Wizards’ final chance to prove they’re still an ascending franchise.
Since Howard forced his way out of Orlando in 2012, he has had uninspiring stints with the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets. The Brooklyn Nets traded for him for accounting purposes recently, and now they’re paying for him to go away. So he is headed to Washington, which has committed to him for two years, the second of which is an option year for Howard. After one-and-done stops in Atlanta and Charlotte, this should be his final chance to be a starter on a team with legitimate playoff aspirations. Fail here, and Howard will be relegated to backup duty on a good team or an assignment to produce empty stats for a completely irrelevant franchise.
The best of Howard — the greatest rebounder of his generation, a very good screen-setter and finisher, still a solid rim-protecting defender — fits the Wizards perfectly. But the worst of him — moody, stubborn, parks in the post and refuses to pass, inconsistent energy — fits the mercurial side of the Wizards perfectly, too. Howard is going to enhance something about this team, for better or worse. The race to decide whether it’s the Wizards’ virtue or vices begins now.
You can fool yourself into believing it won’t be that bad because, in the NBA and most team sports, conflict is rarely overt. The Wizards have had their problems, but their dirty laundry comes out only in small items. The John Wall-Gortat snit featured a Twitter post and a couple of interviews. The complicated Wall-Bradley Beal relationship has been alluded to mostly in vague comments from time to time. There is some locker-room bitterness among the role players about how partial the Wizards are to their stars, about how they allow Wall and Beal to get away with too much, but those players won’t speak for attribution. The Wizards aren’t mired in turmoil, but they’re a squad without a galvanizing force and a steady veteran voice.
Over the past six years, Howard hasn’t meshed with superstars such as Kobe Bryant and James Harden. In addition, Atlanta and Charlotte were happy to say goodbye to him. For a fun-loving player who smiles often, Howard has developed a cantankerous reputation. But when training camp begins in late September, you will see how affable and thoughtful he can be. You will remember how honest and professional Wall is during interviews, as well as how cerebral and determined Beal comes across when he speaks. You will recognize again why Otto Porter Jr. is such a glue player. And it will make you wonder how a team with this much individual likability could be doomed as a unit before the season begins.
How does that happen? It starts with a lack of communication, which turns into jealousy and miscommunication and petty silent feuds and then erupts into a big ol’ passive-aggressive mess. These very human shortcomings become magnified in major sports when a team struggles. People struggle with difficult conversations partly because they don’t know how to develop relationships and ignore the need to squash sprouting issues immediately.
Howard is about to enter his 15th NBA season, and he’s now the most veteran member of the Wizards’ rotation. But he’s still just 32 years old and growing out of a coddled lifestyle that stunts a star athlete’s overall maturation. Wall, Beal and most of the other Wizards are at more elementary stages of growth, and sometimes, they act like it. On a roster that lacks a natural leader, this is a problem. Actually, it’s a time bomb if the Wizards don’t acknowledge the possibility of pitfalls and take proactive steps to manage their relationships.
Years of evidence suggest that Howard and his new team will ignore the hazards, jump into this arrangement and try to figure out the hard stuff later. That is why it is easiest to expect that this will end badly. But maturation isn’t a linear process, and desperation is almost impossible to measure.
So there’s a tiny hole in the corner of this cynicism. Get out your glasses — or a magnifying glass — to see it. That is the space reserved for this marriage. It is crammed, not much wiggle room. But it is there, amid all the doubt.
For Howard and the Wizards to defy meager expectations, they must see both the doubt and the hole within it. First, they must admit how easily they can fail. Then maybe they can do something about it.