Sunday, April 22, 2012

From Bron to Dwight, The South Beach Theory: How a Superstar Becomes Hated

Friday, April 20th marked the end of Dwight Howard in an Orlando Magic uniform.

The center's season ended, as doctors concluded that surgery for a herniated disc was necessary for the Orlando Magic star center. He underwent the knife shortly thereafter, ruling Howard out for any postseason play, as well as the Summer Olympics in London, where he surely would have held down the starting 5 slot.

The chatter all season long had been if Dwight was going to stay in Orlando, with a player option for the 2012-2013 season being at his disposal to either exercise, or decline. The choice was his to either stay in Orlando and sign a long-term extension, leave the Magic for a bigger market team closer to winning a title, and of course, to expand his off-court opportunities, or "brand" if you will. Ultimately, Dwight decided to waive his option to become a free agent this summer, citing that the team's success this season against the best teams in the league in recent months had emboldened him to the point where he thought this current squad might be able to, or was close to winning a NBA title.
Just a few weeks ago, I had a conversation in the office with one of the only hardcore Orlando Magic fans in the tri-state area, and we came to the conclusion that maybe, JUST MAYBE, this Orlando squad could make a miracle run to the Finals. They'd have no trouble beating the Celtics or Hawks in the first round, and then faced with the purportedly impervious Chicago or Miami, perhaps 2 weeks of spectacular play from Howard (nothing less than 28 point, 15 boards and 60% shooting would do) and the shooters surrounding him (with a requisite 3P FG% of about 45%) could propel a hot team to the Finals, similar to their run in 2009. That success could perhaps get Dwight to realize that Orlando is the place where he took two teams to the Finals, and could very well do so again in signing for the long-term.  This isn't a farfetched theory; Dwight admitted that the team would have to do as much in this year's playoffs for him to stay.

Now, without the possibility of the Magic going far into the postseason bracket, we're left with the same question that so closely tailed Orlando and Howard all season long - will the team deal Howard before he leaves them for nothing? Not a month after we thought it was over, Dwight Howard's Decision, or Indecision, has been ignited anew. This is the South Beach Theory.

It's Thursday morning, March 15th. The brand-new Amway Center arena, literally still shining as the plastic was ripped from its panels only months earlier, is packed to the brim with reporters, writers and Orlando Magic personnel. They wait patiently, laptops fired up and recorders ready to go, as a man resembling a gigantic, though all-too mortal version of Atlas steps to the microphone, ready to resolve a months -long black hole whose gravitational pull has taken down every team in the NBA down with it.
Dwight Howard is dressed in a striped blue and white polo shirt, with an eye-searing pink ringing around the ends of his sleeves and hanging around his neck, like a Perez Hilton-inspired noose. He looks like a 8 year-old boy, whose mother dressed him in a nice outfit for a big occasion. An incredibly fitting choice, considering Dwight's demeanor that day.

As he sits down in front of these two dozen strangers, Howard looks so worn, beaten and demoralized, that even a sheepish 8 year-old would sit with more poise. Slouched over on the table in front of him, Dwight's massive shoulders that typically look like they could hold the weight of the world, were drawn down towards it under the pressures of a mere city. Regardless of what his body language would convey, Howard tried to portray the jovial, gentle giant persona that he had created and cultivated over the past several years, joking with GM Otis Smith and laughing at statements that quite frankly, weren't funny 12 hours earlier. But the tone of his voice and the sincerity he lacked seemed more reminiscent of a child being forced by a parent to make a public apology, rather than a man in front of his peers giving a definitive stance of conviction. Dwight Howard had decided to stay in Orlando for at least another year.
Juxtaposed with the smiling faces of Otis Smith and Magic CEO Alex Martins breathing sighs of relief, nothing in Dwight's demeanor suggested that he felt the same way. Yes, he repeatedly proclaimed how "relieved he was that this was all over", but Howard looked more like a general who knew that the battle was done, but the war was far from finished. His decision had been delayed, rather than resolved.

All the while, I watched this press conference, thinking that for months, all we wanted was for Dwight to stand up, take a stance and stick with it. And what we got was so far from a satisfactory result. It felt hauntingly familiar to when we heard the words "I'll be taking my talents to South Beach", except without the resolve, if you can imagine that. It's as if Dwight examined LeBron's journey to being one of the biggest sports villains in recent memory, and found ways to amplify it. That's what we're witnessing right now. LeBron's decision as the pervading question following him lasted from May 2010 to July 2010. That's less than 2 months. We're on month 5 with Dwight. With no end in sight.

All-too appropriately, Dwight's back gave out from all the on-court abuse and stress he took as the best player on his team this year, leading to Orlando again wondering if Howard would leave small-town central Florida for a bigger market in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas or Chicago.
Dwight knows how much more he has to gain playing in any of those cities. While his endorsement deals are 10-figures long and his commercials plastered all over the television and internet, the type of coverage that he'd get from moving to a gigantic TV market like LA, NYC, Chi-town or Dallas is an immeasurable improvement over that of Orlando. While his visibility is incredibly high as a cartoon-like physical specimen who dominates the court so explosively and noticeably, moving to a large market would intensify that like putting a stereo to a megaphone. Does Howard want to move because winning is easier in a large market? Hell yes. Is it always easier? No, it's not. But looking at how close the Knicks, Lakers, Clippers and Bulls are to a title, and how Dallas won last year, it's hard to say that being in the big city doesn't have its benefits. It's easier to attract players no matter what their stature, and role players will take cut-rate salaries not only to play with the superstars, but to improve the quality of their off-the-court lives. Dwight wants to improve his brand, just like LeBron did before him, and Shaquille before him, not just by winning, but winning in a place where the echo of falling confetti reverberates the loudest.

So why is it that after all their maneuvering, manipulation and, ironically, indecision, do these guys seem to immeasurably damage their brands in trying to improve them? Why is it that after making their big move, or perhaps not yet in Dwight's case, do they come out of the fray with such devalued images that they strangely seem to be so concerned with augmenting in the first place? How could they not realize how much they are tearing down while in he act of building back up?
Dwight is the best defensive center in the league. That's not even a question. Even those of you bleeding orange and blue can't look me in the eye and say that you wouldn't trade Tyson Chandler for Dwight Howard, straight up. Of course you would. Don't be silly. So how come we left him offof our 1st AND 2nd team All-Defensive squad last week? How is Dwight not the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year? Hell, why am I hearing anyone other than Dwight's name for 1st Team All-NBA? The guy continues to be the undisputed best center in the league. Not enough? Check this example out.
LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. Even as the most pathetic Lakers apologist, I can't say anything to the contrary. He is the best in the league, without peer. He's had one of the greatest statistical seasons of ALL TIME. James is averaging 27/8/6, while shooting 53% from the field, 36% from the 3-point line and 77% from the stripe. Just to top it off, he's got two steals and nearly a block per game and committing only 1.6 fouls a contest while playing some of the most spectacular lock-down perimeter defense in the league. Only Michael Jordan's unreal 1989 season surpasses, or even rivals LeBron's greatness right now.

And yet...there's a DEBATE about who's the MVP? We're staring in the face of one of the most spectacular performances a human's ever had on a professional basketball court and we're wondering if that guy is the most valuable player in the league? We try not to curse too much on the ever-classy MAMBINO ship, but are you FUCKING kidding me? Kevin Durant is a great player, and is having a fine, fine season for the best team in the Western Conference. But there is no way that he is more valuable to Oklahoma City than LeBron is to a Heat team who's fourth best player is Mario Chalmers and sixth best player is Rony Turiaf.
Why is this happening? Why is there a debate? LeBron and Dwight are two of the top 10 best players in the league today. Why are we discrediting their achievements so much? Are people getting tired of voting for the same guys? Are people becoming jaded to the amazing because that has become the norm?

In trying to improve their brands, both men have forgotten what the core tenant for doing so is. Yes, winning championships is first and foremost, but Tim Duncan has won 4 titles, and no one would argue that his presence on an ad campaign is more important than LeBron James'.
What's most important is that we want our greatest to act like the greatest. We want to see them want it. We want to see them struggle to achieve it, and when they get there, celebrate it with them. As such, neither man has gotten there. I call this "The South Beach Theory":  devaluing your brand in an attempt to build it up. It's the single-minded pursuit of improving your own situation, while forgetting that there are other factors involved.

For LeBron, it's not because we wanted him to stay in Cleveland. Hell, I was glad he left. The organization had failed to bring him another guy to play with, and more importantly, to win with. At the end of his 7 years in Northeastern Ohio, the best guys that had run side-by-side with James were Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. Hardly the type of help that Mitch Kupchak got Kobe Bryant in Pau Gasol or RC Buford got Tim Duncan in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
What we all wanted was for LeBron was to be the man who he promised us he was. We wanted him to be the Chosen One, the next great star to lead his team to victory in totality. Not the guy who'd join his biggest rival and still shrink away like George Constanza coming out of the pool. We wanted to see if he could be the greatest by his own hand, but instead we got greatness from the hands of many. We were disappointed because LeBron committed to nothing except for improving his own personal situation. He didn't care about his constituents that had spent their hard-earned money buying into his false promises that yes, you were in turn buying in to the Chosen One. He didn't care that the months-long soap opera was only fueled by his constant indecision and back talk, and how he allowed it to spiral into affecting his and his team's play. As saddened as all of us hoopheads were by The Decision, and his choice of where he wanted to play, nothing made us collectively sadder than how he conducted himself like a boy, rather than a man.  
Sound familiar, Dwight? Yes, it does. But with him, it goes deeper. It's not just the manner in which he'd conducted himself up until the trade deadline, and the day-in and day-out lack of commitment to an Orlando team that he threw under the bus time and time again. It's been his attitude every day since then, presumably until when he decides to leave the Magic for good and everything leading up to now.

What's happening with LeBron and Dwight is that they don't realize that building your brand isn't just about where you go and the finality of the season. It's about commitment, whether it be to your city, your team or to making yourself better. The South Beach Theory isn't just about damaging your brand in an attempt to make it stronger, or moving to a bigger market necessarily. It's that the pathways behind the attempt are completely and totally misguided. For LeBron, it was misguided because after acting like a insecure little kid all season long and not wanting for "anyone to get mad at him", his final decision was one that shied away from that which would make him the greatest. For Dwight, it's not just that he's replicating what LeBron did in his lack of commitment to either leaving, staying or just not discussing it (I don't understand why these guys just don't constantly say "No comment". How hard is that? To just stand your ground?), it's his seeming lack of commitment on the physical end of the game.
I mentioned it in our Grantland-endorsed piece on Andrew Bynum a few weeks ago, but when you look at Dwight's previous 8 seasons in the league, how much better has the guy gotten? If you look at his game and how much he's improved, you'll see that other than a bank shot he rarely takes (or makes), and a running hook shot, there's very little complication he's made to his post-offense arsenal. More to the point, despite leading the league in free throw attempts 4 out of the past 5 seasons, Dwight's free throw percentage hit a career low this year at 49%. It's not just that we're disgusted with Dwight's cowardly indecision, or his willingness to throw his teammates, organization and coaching staff under the bus on a dime, but it's that, unlike LeBron, has shown so little improvement within himself. Say what you want about James' handling of his departure from Cleveland, but the guy has transformed himself from a non-shooting, non-defending small forward who got by on his build and athleticism, into one of the most complete players in the league. For Dwight, The South Beach Theory isn't just that he's doing a terribly disgraceful job in leaving his team for a new one, but also that he's doing not doing enough that should make us WANT to buy into him in the first place.

This is the reason why Dwight isn't getting love in the season-end awards, and why LeBron isn't the unquestioned MVP. It's not because Dwight missed 12 games or LeBron's team is finishing 2nd in the East. It's because we just don't like these guys. Simple as that. If Kevin Durant were putting up LeBron's numbers, would there even a be a question for the MVP trophy? Tyson Chandler will have played 10 more games than Dwight Howard. Does that mean he's the consensus Defensive Player of the Year, without Dwight even in consideration?

I know that these guys have a million different managers, agents, lawyers and family members pulling themselves in a dozen different directions. I'm aware that they live in their own secluded bubbles, filled with yes men and personal friends. But with Twitter, Facebook, 19 different ESPN channels and the fact that they perform in front of 18 THOUSAND NBA fans every other night, the ignorance that these guys sustain is staggering. How do they not see what we all see? That's probably the most important and unanswerable question of all.

LeBron's actions nearly 2 years ago are still affecting his career today, and callous as it was, the ever-improving James at least made a Decision. Can you imagine how far and how long this will follow a stagnantly-skilled Dwight? The South Beach Theory strikes again.

Who's next?

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