Dwight Howard's image took another hit when teammate Kobe Bryant criticized him.

Dwight Howard's father comes to his defense (but would he still be worth risk for Hawks?)

There’s a subject being debated in the front offices of several NBA teams these days, including the Hawks, and it’s not one that’s generally associated with one of the greatest players in the world.

Is Dwight Howard really worth it?

Or should that be: Does Dwight Howard still have it? Or: Does Howard still care? Or: Has Dwight Howard become such a diva that he’s no longer considered the building block for a potential championship?

Howard’s image began to erode in his last seasons in Orlando. His Hamlet act – opting in contractually, but then again vowing to leave in free agency, asking for a trade to Brooklyn, but then ending up being dealt to Los Angeles – was particularly damaging. That marriage has gone so well that the Lakers were blown out by 21 points at Boston the other night, they may miss the playoffs and Kobe Bryant has publicly criticized Howard for complaining too much about shoulder pain and not playing with enough urgency.

Howard fired back: “That’s his opinion” and “He's not a doctor.”

It’s just like the Kardashians, only without the Botox between episodes.

Howard is an Atlanta native. The Hawks will have significant salary-cap space after this season (particularly if Josh Smith is gone). His signing certainly would sell tickets. General manager Danny Ferry approached Orlando about a trade for Howard in June, but the Magic shot it down. (Howard never has publicly expressed interest in playing here, although his father foresees that as a possibility. More on that shortly.)

The bottom line is that Howard’s credibility has taken a major hit, but at least one person believes that’s unfair. Granted, Dwight Howard Sr., his father, can’t be completely objective about his son, but he makes some fair points when he criticizes Bryant for publicly questioning a teammate's toughness and desire. He also said of his son, “In his heart of hearts, I’m still not sure he was really sold on leaving Orlando.”

When asked about the unfolding soap opera in Los Angeles, Dwight Sr. defended his son and criticized both Bryant and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.

“I told him before he said it publicly, ‘It’s your career. No person can say what you need to do or not do. You can’t worry about what Kobe or anybody else says,’” the elder Howard said. “Nobody can say what Kobe said -- that’s stepping into another man’s shoes. I understand what Kobe was trying to do, but he went about it the wrong way. He’s trying to win a championship. But Dwight has to tell Kobe, ‘I appreciate your opinion, but that doesn’t matter. We’re two men on this team. We need to be reasonable about this.’”

Dwight Sr. said he believed Bryant was trying to motivate his son, but that the advice was misplaced, adding: “The problem is the coach. (D’Antoni) needs to step in and say, ‘You guys have got to be quiet. We’re trying to secure something here. Dwight is probably looking at the coach, thinking, ‘What are you going to do?’ I promise, if that had been Stan Van Gundy, that wouldn’t have happened. (Howard) wouldn’t have been admonished publicly. I think the coach has a lot to do with who controls Kobe’s mouth right now.”

OK, timeout: Van Gundy actually outed Howard late last season for wanting the coach fired. (Howard succeeded.) But the father is correct about this: A teammate never should openly question another, particularly when it comes to questioning his toughness. Bryant has his own diva tendencies. But he has credibility. He has won five championships and two finals MVP awards, so his words carry some weight.

Howard and his parents speak frequently. “When he spoke up, he asked me what I thought, and I told him I applaud him for standing up for himself,” Dwight Sr. said. “But I still think he needs to have a sit down with the coach and Kobe.”

He believes Howard received some bad advice from representatives last year: “I don’t think he realized some of the things he was being blessed with in Orlando.”

The Lakers’ situation, he said, has worn on Howard.

“L.A. has been like humble pie for him," he said. "When you go from being the man in one city (Orlando) to second or third tier, it takes a toll on you mentally.”

What happens after the season? Howard’s father still thinks the center will re-sign with the Lakers. When asked about Brooklyn, he said, “Oh, I doubt it. That would surprise me.”

What about the Hawks?

“Dwight hasn’t said anything about Atlanta, either. But he likes home. I think he would love to end his career here, even though he hasn’t said that publicly.”

The question: Do the Hawks still want him?

EARLIER: Mark Richt needs to have a word with Todd Grantham


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