Basketball fans were robbed of seeing Dwight Howard become an all-time great

Mustard Minute: Happy 30th Birthday, Dwight Howard
Mustard Minute: Happy 30th Birthday, Dwight Howard

When Dwight Howard was 20, he was already one of the best centers in the NBA. By the time he was 25, he'd established himself as a top-five player overall.

Today, Dwight Howard is 30. And unless things change quickly, his best basketball is already behind him.

It was four seasons ago that Howard was the focal point of a contending Orlando Magic team, averaging roughly 20 points and 13 rebounds each year. Anchoring a top-10 defense and catalyzing Stan Van Gundy's pick-and-roll heavy offense, Dwight nearly single-handedly led Orlando to an NBA Finals appearance in 2009 -- at just 23.

But the grass always seemed greener, and by 2010 it seemed like a near certainty that Howard would ditch Florida for a more glamorous market -- particularly Brooklyn or Los Angeles -- and to play with a co-star. Namely: Chris Paul, who he'd been in constant contact with over several years.

See photos of Howard throughout his career

But when Paul grew comfortable with his home in Los Angeles with the Clippers, and there was no feasible way for him to team with Deron Williams and become a Brooklyn Net, to the Los Angeles Lakers he went -- for a season in which he was never healthy enough to make a legitimate defensive impact and could never adjust to being a third option on offense.

Now, in his third season with the Houston Rockets and possibly hitting free agency once again this summer, Howard is far from the dominant player that won Orlando an Eastern Conference title. After chronic back and knee ailments, Dwight is ideally a complementary piece on a contending team with strong leadership already in place -- and right now, the Rockets aren't either of those.

Injuries played a part, but so did stubbornness and indecisiveness. But basketball fans were robbed of Dwight Howard's prime. And for a player that produced at such a record-setting pace before he even hit 25, that stinks.