Remember Dwight Howard?
Remember the shot-erasing, lob-catching, post-bullying, slam-dunking sure-fire Hall of Famer? Remember when he was one of the most dominant players in the NBA on both ends of the court? Remember when he mattered so much that his play determined whether his team won or lost? Remember when he was THE guy?
Well, forget all of it.
That’s not the guy the Lakers are getting, and it’s important that they know that. And, it’s even more important that Howard knows it.
The Lakers won’t be signing a star center when Howard officially clears waivers. They won’t be getting someone who will determine whether this season is a success or not. No, the Lakers are signing a part-time player, someone who needs to win single possessions instead of games or championships.
There might be some confusion about this, though. Howard is here because of DeMarcus Cousins’ knee injury. And Cousins was here because he had the kind of talent that could elevate the Lakers to the highest levels.
And by picking Howard, the team seems to be betting on the only available player with a chance of matching that upside. There’s only one player who has averaged at least 17.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks — and it’s Howard.
But even if he were the same player — and he’s not — the Lakers don’t need that kind of player. They have Anthony Davis, who is more than capable of being the team’s center in its best lineups. They have LeBron James, who shouldn’t have to sit and watch as Howard tries to back down defenders in the post.
No, the Lakers need a big body to absorb the kind of punishment an NBA center endures, the kind of punishment the team is trying to save Davis from. They need someone to set good screens, to rebound, to protect the basket, to space the floor and to keep the offense from getting stagnant.
And it shouldn’t be surprising that here in the final days of August, the Lakers weren’t able to find a player who could satisfy all those requirements. Maybe Howard can be a rim protector (he blocked only four shots in nine games last season). Maybe he can be a positive impact on the offense without demanding touches.
That’s the Lakers’ hope, and by getting Howard to agree to a non-guaranteed deal, they’re as skeptical as anyone. Still, they picked him.
They could’ve gone with Marreese Speights, the former Golden State Warriors and Clippers big man who shot better than 36% from three-point range in his last three NBA seasons. He would’ve spaced the floor without giving the team much lift on defense.
Joakim Noah proved he still could be an active defender and energetic presence on offense in the second half of last season in Memphis, and he would’ve been a natural fit.
But the best version of Howard is so much better than anyone else the Lakers could’ve signed. It’s just that he’s also, probably, the least predictable.
The Lakers will be Howard’s fifth team in the last 14 months, with Memphis and Brooklyn both deciding they’d rather just waive him than keep him around. His stop with the Lakers could be his last on the way to the Big 3.
Some scouts like the move. They believe Howard still can be a presence around the basket, an effective finisher on one end and a deterrent on the other. They believe he and Davis can be an active, athletic combination in the Lakers’ frontcourt. They believe Howard still can be productive ... if he can accept the role that’s available.
And that’s probably the biggest issue facing the Lakers with Howard. He can’t afford to be the same polarizing locker-room presence. He’s not good enough to make the headaches worth it. He can’t afford to not play with energy and effort on a consistent basis because the Lakers can move on without penalty if he doesn’t. He can’t demand the ball in the post and slow the offense, he can’t take bad shots and brick free throws.
Howard convinced the Lakers he won’t do those things, that he’s ready to make a difference no matter the role. And, with his NBA career in jeopardy, we should believe Howard when he says that stuff.
But this probably won’t be a “want to” issue as much as a “can he” problem.
Transitioning from focal point to backup is much easier to imagine than to actually witness. For every Vince Carter, there’s a Paul Pierce on the Clippers, a Shaquille O’Neal on the Boston Celtics, and a Steve Nash on the Lakers. The end usually isn’t pretty.
Howard will need to be an outlier — someone who not only accepts a reduced role but also excels in it. He doesn’t have to be the guy he used to be — it’d actually be better for the Lakers if he’s someone completely new.
They want to remember a Howard who doesn’t get in the way, a Howard OK picking up the scraps, a Howard who makes the right plays and doesn’t disrupt the locker room, a Howard who quietly goes about defending the paint and finishing at the basket.
The Lakers aren’t getting a star. And everyone has to understand that if this has any chance of working.