Here comes the Dwightmare

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As recently as last season, Dwight Howard was considered one of the top players in the NBA, right up there with the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Nowadays, Howard has to settle for simply being one of the best centers in the league.

His numbers (16.5 points per game, 11.9 rebounds per game, .496 FT) are down and the Los Angeles Lakers (22-26), expected to make a title run after acquiring Howard in the offseason, are 3½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Lakers have won their past two games -- both without Howard, who has a shoulder injury.

Why has Howard fallen from the ranks of the NBA's most dominant players?

"I think he got a negative perception the last year-and-a-half, going through the free-agency process," Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams said Sunday, two days before the Nets-Lakers showdown at Barclays Center. "So I think that's a lot of it. And then, two, he's been hurt. Last year, he was hurt, played through a lot of injuries with his back.

"I can attest to what that does for your confidence and how you play, so I think that's the main two reasons. But I think once he gets healthy, and they start winning again, people will start talking about him the way they were."

Joining the Lakers after eight seasons in Orlando has also been a transition for Howard. And playing for three head coaches -- Mike Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff and Mike D'Antoni -- in his first season as a Laker probably hasn't helped.

"Getting acclimated to new teammates and a new system," Williams said, "it's an adjustment."

It seems like just yesterday, in late December 2011, that Williams and Howard -- good friends at the time -- were having dinner in Orlando, possibly discussing their future together as teammates.

Howard wanted out. Howard wanted Brooklyn. Williams wanted Howard. It seemed like a matter of when.

The Nets tried and tried again to land Howard via trade. They couldn't. Whatever. They'd wait until he'd exercised his early termination option, then sign him as a free agent. But in mid-March 2012 Howard did the unthinkable, choosing to waive his E.T.O. And with that, he lost his leverage.

Last summer, Nets GM Billy King offered Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and as many as four future first-round picks for Howard. Orlando said no.

By August, Howard was a Laker. By November, he was saying he didn't care if Williams was still his friend anymore.

"It's my life, so if he's upset because I made a decision for me, so be it," Howard said then. "If he doesn't want to be friends because I'm on another team, then so be it. There's no need to smooth things over."

Still, Howard isn't signed to a long-term deal. As a result, the "Dwightmare" hasn't died. It won't until his future is certain.

On Tuesday night at Barclays Center, Howard will get a taste of what could've been -- and as crazy as it sounds, maybe what still could be.

"He impacts every game," Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said. "He's one of the best centers in the league. It's very hard to take the ball to the basket when Dwight's on the floor.

"Offensively, people tend to focus on his free throw shooting, and they forget that he's very good with his back to the basket and his bank shots. Offensively, he's good when they post him up. People tend to say, 'Well he's a bad offensive player because he doesn't shoot free throws very well,' but he's a good offensive player. He's a problem to defend offensively."