We were supposed to see the new Dwight Howard this season.
Then Shaquille O'Neal, despite the increasing width of his lumpy backside built on years of too many baby back ribs and cinnamon Pop Tarts, came to town and proved what many of us Howard critics have been saying for some months.
|Shaquille O'Neal's dunk on Dwight Howard sent a message during Sunday's game. (Getty Images)|
It took a mostly washed up O'Neal, who still possesses a modicum of swagger, to show that Howard is the same limited big man with grand potential who still can't live up to it.
This should've been a statement game for Howard. Old guard vs. new guard, George Reeves against Brandon Routh. Because of O'Neal's advanced age and cul-de-sac girth, this was supposed to be low-hanging fruit for Howard.
Instead, the Sunday game between Orlando and Cleveland started with O'Neal dunking on Howard's head. Throughout the game O'Neal played Howard close despite being 13 years older. Howard definitely had a statistically good afternoon with 22 points and 16 rebounds but O'Neal made his first eight shots and finished with 20 points of his own.
The animus between the two men continues to intensify over an imaginary who's-the-real-Superman feud. Howard told the Orlando Sentinel the fight has gotten so snippy that O'Neal snubbed him during the NBA's All-Star Weekend by walking past him and not saying hello.
"Shaq will get his someday," Howard said.
Well, here was your chance to deliver some payback, big fella. Instead, O'Neal dunked on your head.
It's not that O'Neal dominated Howard. It's that Howard failed to dominate O'Neal.
No matter his alleged offensive improvement, Howard continues to be the most frustrating player in the NBA and maybe all of sports.
He should be the 21st century's Wilt Chamberlain. No NBA big man has Howard's athleticism and power. Yet, despite the protestations of Howard's apologists, he continues to underachieve for a man of such significant physical presence.
Howard deserves credit for attempting to diversify his offensive game with more front looks and handsomer jumpers, yet he still doesn't look drastically different. He might be demanding the ball more but it looks tepid, almost fake, like he's trying to be something he's not.
He still hasn't cultured the thorny tenaciousness of a LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. O'Neal once hungered for more than Snickers bars and was a vicious competitor. Howard doesn't have that nastiness.
Howard has a legion of apologists because he truly is a hell of a nice guy. But this isn't about his candidacy for Man of the Year. This is about his legacy as Big Man of a Generation.
It's also not necessarily that Howard doesn't look mean or scowl enough. Wade looks like a pretty boy underwear model, but on the floor he's a stone-cold killer.
What makes Wade and others relentless and not Howard is something that's mostly inexplicable. Some of it is just inherent and can't be artificially forged or reverse engineered.
The Magic, meanwhile, constantly bristle over any Howard criticism and are extremely defensive when it comes to their star. "... The national media, he's just a guy that gets [dumped] on," coach Stan Van Gundy recently said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "You would think that he's not one of the elite players in the league. I guess people haven't noticed his offensive improvement. I don't think anybody's paying attention, the stuff I read about him. If there's guys in the league playing better than he is right now, there's like two or three of them. There are not many doing what he's doing. He has carried our team."
Van Gundy added that he recently heard of a comparison made between Howard and Boston's Kevin Garnett that wasn't kind to Howard.
"Kevin Garnett has been in this league forever and he's won six playoff series in his career," Van Gundy said. "Dwight's won four and he's  years old. That's a pretty good comparison. Why is Kevin Garnett a great winner and Dwight Howard's not? I don't get it. And if you're just going to go by titles, Kevin Garnett's got one, and Dwight's got as many as LeBron's got. But LeBron's a great winner and Dwight [isn't]? I don't get it."
Comparing Howard to James is practically treasonous and Van Gundy's logic has some holes in it.
There's a question to ask. Why is it that national dopes like me and others, as Van Gundy claims, keep wondering about Howard's internal combustion engine?
Maybe it's possible we're not erroneous. Maybe we're onto something.
Many times, Howard will be the biggest and strongest on the floor, so he's going to get his points and rebounds.
If only Howard were hungrier, he might already have much more.