Imagine watching your dad parking a brand new Corvette in the garage, knowing that it’s all yours, but having to wait six months to get your license.
With the strangest summer since… well, yet another strange summer in Lakerland in the rearview, the goings-on of recent months have begun to take root in reality. Learning – while watching fireworks rain down on the Hudson – that one of the game’s true maestros will conduct the Lakers’ offense this season (and the next couple to come) is enough to slap a perma-grin on the most cynical of mugs. That said, not until the deal was legally consummated and Steve Nash presented to our euphoric lot (and the crestfallen masses) did his arrival begin to feel “real.” Even so, not until we see a purple- or gold- (or, on Sundays, white-)clad #10 tightrope the baseline – as only he can – will the 50-40-90-laced dream otherwise known as “Steve Nash, Laker point guard” truly be an actuality.
In similar vein, not until we’ve watched one of the NBA’s most incisive penetrators attack the paint and revisit the strategic misstep that brought him eye-to-(I dunno, chin? Nose?) with the league’s most dominant interior defender, or until an errant attempt on offense is rerouted through the Lakers’ goal with devastating force will “Dwight Howard is our freaking center!” be cemented in reality.
Thing is, for reasons that I struggle to explain, the notion of Steve Nash manning the controls of the offense, while no more enthralling, has proven easier to accept than has that of Dwight Howard assuming the role of Laker legend in the middle.
Simplistically, it may just be the passage of time. The Nash trade was announced on July 4, while Dwight was not Westward bound until August 10. Perhaps an extra five weeks of the Steve Nash Experience engendered a familiarity that’s not yet emerged in our relationship with Dwight Howard.
Perhaps it’s preexisting familiarity. Born of eight years of divisional cohabitation and three playoff encounters – including 2006, in which the eighth-seeded Lakers squandered a commanding 3-1 series lead to the top-seeded Suns before succumbing in seven, and 2010, when an overachieving Suns squad took two from the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals – Steve Nash has squared off against the Lakers 56 times in his 17-year career, 47 after rejoining the Phoenix Suns in 2004. For all the hype surrounding every Kobe-LeBron “duel,” and the compelling, evolving rivalry with the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s difficult to think of an opponent whose path has more often crossed that of the Lakers, or one that has left a more indelible mark in the collective mind of Laker Nation. I know what they say about familiarity and contempt, but under the right circumstances it’s also been known to breed respect and admiration.
Meanwhile, over the same eight-year period (since entering the NBA in 2004-05), due obviously to his Eastern locale, Dwight Howard faced the Lakers just 20 times. And while 16.9 points (56.8% from the field) and 12.8 rebounds (3.55 ORB) per game is hardly pedestrian, most fans (this one for sure) are likely hard pressed to recall even one truly memorable performance turned in by Dwight against the Lakers – and that includes the five encounters in nine days comprising the competitive-but-hardly-epic 2009 Finals.
More than either of these, however, is the degree to which each man impacts the roster. While each represents a significant improvement over his predecessor(s) in the Laker lineup, Nash is the Holy Grail, an oasis amid the Smush Vujamarsessisher desert, while Howard “merely” kicks the center spot up from All-Star to All-World. Again, though, this smacks of oversimplification.
I mean, as good as Andrew Bynum was, is and may be going forward, Dwight Howard is, right now, Andrew Bynum actualized. Howard is the most physically imposing and dominant big man since Shaq, with a dedication to conditioning mocking that of his fellow Orlando defector. Prior to 2011-12, Howard had missed an average of one game per season over his first seven in the NBA. And last season, the most injury-plagued and distraction-laden of his career? The one in which he missed 12 of 66 regular season games and had his back cut on upon at season’s end? (NOTE: These playoff stats are from the spring of 2011. In putting together this section of the article, I went with my Basketball-Reference muscle memory and totally overlooked Dwight’s absence from last year’s playoffs. HORRIBLE snafu on my part.) He capped it off with a six-game playoff run in which he averaged 27 and 15.5, and made not only 63% of his field goals, but 68.2% of his free throws (60-of-88).
Additionally, the consistency with which he has handled his business on the court is nothing short of staggering. Over his past six seasons, Howard has averaged no worse than 17.6 points per game (20+ four times) or 12.3 rebounds per (14+ three times), and just once (56.9% last season) posted a True Shooting Percentage below 60%. Howard is not only (by far) the NBA’s best center, but an evolutionary Moses Malone. A certified superstar. Were he to retire tomorrow, Dwight Howard would be Hallward bound.
Why then – again, despite incredible happiness and renewed optimism – am I unable to fling myself head over heels for the player with the greatest potential to pen the next chapter in the Lakers’ glorious tome?
Because Dwight Howard is a frightening study in paradox.
Despite a granite frame, physical gifts the likes of which the position has rarely seen and the advantage of youth over his veteran backcourt mates, it is Dwight who’s most recently faced the most potentially debilitating injury.
He is the 26 year-old manchild who led Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson to the Finals, but has been accused (wrongly) of lacking the killer instinct of his top teammates – noted high-functioning sociopath Kobe Bryant and less-abrasive-but-equally-bloodthirsty Steve Nash – and… hey, cool elephant, dude… (Far more accurately) of holding hostage and tearing asunder the only NBA franchise for whom he’s (thus far) ever suited up.
Now in the role for which he was seemingly created. In the city, with the franchise that will deliver to him the ceaseless attention he seeks. He’s got a roster around him that’s not only prepared to win now, but consists of a trio of transcendent talents whose skills beautifully complement his own. Unfortunately, his contract offers the organization the least in terms of long term security and leverage, and his track record of accountability and, ahem, in just this scenario is, well… dicey at best.
Prior to the moderately coherent babbling above, my joy, optimism and trepidation over the Lakers’ acquisition of Dwight Howard has been available exclusively in 140-character increments. I could present semi-legitimate explanations involving travel, work schedule, evil corporate web filters and a comprehensive, gaming-inducing immersion into college football. And I wouldn’t be lying. Thing is, as much as any of these obstacles stood in the way of long-form pontification on D-12, the fact of the matter is I really was not sure what my thoughts were on the matter.
I’m still not entirely certain.
Dwight is obviously a monumental pickup and an upgrade over an already excellent center. I am prepared, eager, to welcome him into my sporting family. I look forward to the lane being off-limits to the opposition, to dominating the glass, to top-of-the-square catches on alley-oops, to five months of open spot-ups in the corner for Metta, to the ascent of the pick-and-roll to its highest elevation, to the two-man game with Pau Gasol, and to regular 20-20s. A healthy (thus far there is no reason to believe that he’ll be anything but) Dwight Howard, a generational superstar at the peak of his powers, will rank among the great acquisitions in NBA history. That said…
To ignore to manner in which he handled his business with the Magic, and the unseemly manner in which he orchestrated his exit from Orlando would be to willfully rejoice in the suffering of a fan base whose emotions and allegiances mirror our own (remember Kobe in 2007?). I have not one iota of blame for fans in central Florida whose anger over Dwight’s conduct – the false hope, the wishy-washiness, the contradictions, the insincere people-pleaser routine – does not subside for some time. That said…
While I did not initially celebrate the arrival of Dwight Howard with the childlike enthusiasm that came so easily for Steve Nash, I think I have arrived. I’m not sure the process leading up to Dwight’s departure from Orlando will ever not feel kinda gross. And yes, like anyone entering into a relationship with someone with checkered past, my guard may be up a bit higher than normal for a little while. But, as with Shaq, Kobe, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, I look forward to watching – with a clean slate – the growth and evolution of Dwight Howard, as he pens what are certain to be the defining chapters of his legendary career.
Dwight Howard is our freaking center.