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Column: Before Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard tried to be Lakers’ next great big man

No. 4 Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard played only one season for the Lakers.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers made a big splash this summer by trading for a dominant 26-year-old big man coming off six consecutive All-Star appearances. While he’s entering the final year of his contract after playing with just one franchise, the hope is he will re-sign with the Lakers after pairing with the team’s 34-year-old iconic star to lead the team back to a championship.

If this sounds familiar, it should. That description applies not only to Anthony Davis joining forces with LeBron James in Los Angeles, a partnership that became official at a news conference on Saturday, but it also describes Dwight Howard teaming up with Kobe Bryant in 2012.

The Lakers are hoping this tandem isn’t as big of a dud as that one, but nothing in life is guaranteed, and as Howard, 33, prepares to join his eighth team in the last nine years, he hopes Davis is living in the moment and not thinking about the future.

“I would tell him to just enjoy the moment and enjoy this season,” Howard told The Times. “When I was here, unfortunately things happened where we didn’t win, guys got hurt, but I enjoyed the city, I enjoyed the people and I had some really great relationships with people that came from being out here.

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“So there were some positives. We just didn’t win that season, and that’s what happens when you play basketball. Things may look good, but injuries and other issues may happen and things might not work out, but I still had a good time in L.A.”

When Howard was introduced at a news conference seven years ago, then-Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak recounted the team’s history of legendary big men such as George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal and said he saw Howard as the next in line.

Howard, however, was coming off surgery to repair a herniated disk and was never the same player who missed only five games in his first seven seasons in Orlando, an All-Star annually among league leaders in rebounds and blocked shots.

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Also arriving that year was former most valuable player Steve Nash, who sustained a fracture in his left leg in the second game of the season. Bryant tore his Achilles tendon and by the end of the season the Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs. They haven’t returned to the postseason since.

While the Lakers tried to re-sign Howard, putting up billboards around town pleading with him to “Stay,” Howard ended up turning down the team’s five-year, $118-million offer. He instead signed a four-year, $88-million deal with the Houston Rockets. He would be the first of many stars to turn down the Lakers in free agency, but Howard thinks that will change now with James and Davis in Los Angeles.

“It just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time,” Howard. “But the Lakers have been doing something right for a long time because they have the most fans in the world and the most championships over the past 40 years. You’re not going to win a championship every year, but they’re back and will compete for a championship next season. There’s some really good teams out there and everybody wants to see how everything is going to shake out. But it’s great to see teams that were struggling are back competing for a title again.”

Howard, who played in only nine games last season because of another back injury that required surgery, was traded from the Washington Wizards to the Memphis Grizzlies this month. The Grizzlies reportedly are trying to trade Howard, and if they can’t strike a deal, will waive him before the start of the season. Howard isn’t sure where he’ll wind up, but said he wouldn’t mind giving Los Angeles, whether that’s with the Lakers or Clippers, another shot.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do love L.A.,” Howard said. “Staples Center is going to be rocking this season. When I played there it was rocking every night. The atmosphere is crazy, not just for the Lakers but the Clippers too. I just think all the hard work they’ve put in is paying off now. They’ve always been viewed as the Lakers’ little brother, but they decided to stand out and be different and you have to thank guys like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul for laying the foundation for this team, and then what Doc [Rivers] has done has been great. This is just all that hard work paying off.”


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