There was a time when the phrase “Dwight Howard #futurelaker” would have been retweeted into oblivion by happy Lakers fans. That time, of course, is not today. Not after Howard actually did become a Laker only to play through an injury cursed season that saw Kobe Bryant go down with an achilles rupture and the team get swept in the 1st round at the hand of the Spurs. The lasting image from Howard’s first stint is him walking off the court dejected while Tim Duncan laughs in the background at the utter misery of the player once considered the best big man and defensive player in the game.
Howard, though, will be a Laker again. After being bought out by Memphis, Howard will reportedly sign a non-guaranteed, veteran minimum contract with the Lakers to replace the recently injured DeMarcus Cousins on the big man depth chart. Howard, as he is want to do, is reportedly saying all the right things and made a strong impression on the team’s front office during a tryout and subsequent discussions with the team’s top players.
Calling the reviews mixed in the wake of this news would be…generous. Reviews are not mixed. They’re mostly negative. Fans, spurned by Howard once before and remembering all the bad moments from an underachieving first stint with the team do not want him anywhere near this roster. They remember Dwight not wanting to run P&R’s with Steve Nash, they remember him taking jabs at Kobe behind closed doors, they remember him asking for too many post ups, and they remember the subsequent subpar success rate when he got them.
Too be fair, I remember those too. Just like I remember Dwight coming back too early from back surgery, him playing through a bad shoulder, and him still putting up numbers. Dwight wasn’t the best version of himself when he first passed through Los Angeles. He was probably better than given credit for, even while (fairly) acknowledging the level he did play to was not good enough. So, Dwight left. Walking in free agency to the Rockets, turning his back on billboards asking him to #stay.
Most fans were happy to see him go. And, since he’s left the Lakers, I can’t say many have missed him. His numbers have never been the same as his Orlando peak, but his flameouts, injury struggles, and negative locker room presence have never been higher. Be it in Houston, Charlotte, Atlanta, or Washington he’s not been an on-court difference maker and left every team on terms that easily allowed the bullseye to be placed on his back when things didn’t work out. Add in stops in both Brooklyn and, now, Memphis where he was bought out without ever playing a minute for the organization and it’s clear where his value is around the league.
That value is also reflected in the contract Dwight will sign with the Lakers. Non-guaranteed. Veteran minimum. Nothing screams “show us you have it together or we’ll happily just get rid of you” more than this type of contract. Be it health, attitude, buy-in to his role, or just his general ability to produce on the court, Dwight is on notice. The Lakers have baked in as little risk as possible for a player who we all recognize carries a fair amount of it. They’ve done well for themselves on that front. Whether they’ve done well by actually signing Dwight is another story.
It’s a story I’m not going to spend too much time on, though. Because, honestly, there are more questions than answers here. I can tell you I think Dwight can do several key things well enough:
- Protect the rim defensively.
- Score on lobs and on dump-offs near the basket on penetration and via P&R sets.
The questions I have overshadow these things, though, so I really cannot speak with any confidence the things I think he can still do reasonably well will actually play out that way on the court. I mean, can he stay healthy? Can he buy into a diminished role? Will he be okay as the likely backup to JaVale McGee? Will essentially being the 3rd center (behind McGee and Davis when he slides up to the 5), be something he can actually embrace when the time comes? Will he be fine rarely getting a post touch? And I haven’t even gotten into the questions about his actual ability to perform on the court — remember, he only played in 5 games last year so we really have not seen him produce.
Despite all I’ve typed above, I’m pretty neutral on this signing and am willing to give it a chance even though I would have preferred the team sign Joakim Noah instead.
If, and it’s a big if, Dwight can play to his strengths and have a good enough attitude to not worry about a diminished role, he can help this team. He can help in the same way that JaVale helps; the same way that Tyson Chandler helped last year. If he does not help and if he falls back into the same bad habits that he’s had in too many other stops since leaving the Magic, the Lakers will cut him. An equation where the Lakers either get a version of Dwight worth keeping around or Dwight ultimately is no longer on the team is one I can live with.