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Dwight Howard can have fun again this season with the Wizards

Without a spotlight, Howard and the Wizards can enjoy the game for what it is

NBA: Washington Wizards-Media Day Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Smile as much as possible. It’s good for your soul.

Unless you’re Dwight Howard.

When Howard was winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award, leading the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals and making the All-Star team each year, his smile was easy to embrace. In a league glorifying grown men putting an orange ball through a floating hole, Howard was a breath of fresh air. He didn’t take the game too seriously and it didn’t stop him from dominating. If anything, it contributed to his success. He built a “Superman” persona—he was the happy, go-lucky, unstoppable giant.

Then an injury happened. The wins weren’t as frequent and he changed jerseys a few times. Suddenly, the smile wasn’t as bright or endearing. It became a source of irritation. Howard’s teams underperformed and he took the brunt of the blame. Critics—the same people who once couldn’t get enough of his theatrics—said Howard was too carefree. They dumped his past accomplishments and began associating his easygoing disposition with lack of leadership. He was poisonous to serious locker rooms that wanted to win, the critics said. Hating on Howard for being a goof became the popular thing to do—and it remains that way.

Overnight, the league and fan-wide perception of Howard shifted. Legends like Shaq poked fun at Howard every chance they got, quickly eroding his image—and with it, his passion for the game.

With the Washington Wizards, his sixth team, that could change.

Neither the Wizards nor Howard have any real expectations coming into this season. Some think their stories are tired—that the two delusional pieces are perfect for each other, as The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo said.

Wall and Beal have played seven seasons together and have yet to make “the leap” in the playoffs. Is this finally the year? How many times have we heard that?

Howard has played for countless teams, it seems. I thought the Lakers were the problem? What about the Hawks? The Hornets? When is Howard going to look in the mirror? It’s insanity.

Howard is expected to fail just as much as the Wizards are expected to disappoint. Washington blew their chance at relevancy last season and Howard hasn’t been considered a premier player in years. Critics have every reason to scoff at the Wizards and Howard.

So it’s time to have fun again.

The Wizards have nothing to lose—and they know that. And the last time they had nothing to lose, they were entertaining—and productive. The likes of Al Harrington, Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza kept the locker room light. They gave the team personality and it translated to the court. The team had more “bounce” - more energy. They played basketball the way it should be played—with enjoyment, with excitement and with enthusiasm.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Wizards lost that element of “fun,” but it was apparent the team had none of it last season. The locker room was in shambles and the previous year’s success was enough to give the team an undeserved ego.

All of that is gone now. The Wizards, once again, will enjoy being an underdog—a team without any national spotlight. Howard will be hidden in the darkness too. Washington will rarely appear on television this season and the team itself couldn’t be less popular. All eyes are on the Celtics, LeBron’s Lakers, the 76ers and the Warriors. Washington is as obscure as it gets in the NBA.

“When I’m enjoying the game and I’m having fun, that’s when I dominate the most,” Howard said after signing with the Wizards.

Howard and the Wizards have nothing to focus on but the game—and they have no excuse not to enjoy it this season.