When Dwight Howard was last seen in a Lakers uniform, he was abandoning the team.
It was in the spring of 2013, the third quarter of a playoff-sweeping victory by the San Antonio Spurs. Howard had just whined his way into a second technical foul and an ejection. When the Lakers needed him most, he was walking away through a Staples Center tunnel, disappearing again.
“This is like a nightmare,” he said at the time. “This is like a bad dream and I couldn’t wake up out of it.”
The nightmare is officially back. A couple of weeks after the Lakers signed him to a one-year, nonguaranteed deal, Howard re-introduced himself Wednesday during a 14-minute conference call in which he said all the right things.
But, for the Lakers, this was still the wrong move.
“I think we all have a fresh start,” he said. “I’m looking forward to having a fresh start with the fans … show them my only dedication is to putting another banner up here in Los Angeles.”
Howard is 33 now, clearly more mature and introspective, and he answered questions with some smarts.
But this was still a dumb signing.
“I never had any ill will toward any of the fans here in L.A.,” he said, later adding, “I love this city. I love playing in L.A. I’m back here, so none of that stuff in the past even really matters to me anymore.”
First off, he never loved this city. He was completely miserable playing under the pressure of the Hollywood spotlight; it was one of the main reasons he didn’t stay here. Second, while that stuff in the past might not matter to him, it should matter to the Lakers, whose newfangled front office clearly suffered from a lack of institutional knowledge in making this move.
Was nobody there alive from 2012 to 2013?
Did they not remember the air of Howard complacency that quickly settled in after a surprising opening-night loss to the Dallas Mavericks?
Asked that night whether he was embarrassed, he simply shrugged.
“Embarrassed? I’ve played home openers where we’ve lost by 30 points … yeah, really,” he said at the time. “I’m sure everyone in Laker nation wants us to win every game, but it takes time.”
It certainly did take time for Howard to get competitive and angry and full of effort. It took forever. It never happened.
Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ basketball boss, was Kobe Bryant’s agent then. Surely he remembers how Bryant spent the season pushing Howard to be more focused, more serious, more caring.
It didn’t seem coincidental that moments after Howard left the court in disgrace after that final game in 2013, Bryant hobbled out to make his first appearance since his Achilles tendon was torn a couple of weeks earlier. Howard vanishes, Bryant shows up, and stays on the bench to cheer and coach.
During his brief time here, Howard was the anti-Kobe. Yet, seven years later, the Lakers bring him back to add fire to the heart of their lineup?
He was such a malingerer that, in a recent series of tweets in which they were criticizing each other, the forever-feuding Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal finally agreed on one thing: O’Neal ripped Howard and Bryant responded with what was essentially a Twitter laugh.
“My goal is just to win; that’s all that matters,” Howard said Wednesday. “Whatever I have to do to be a great teammate.”
He has had plenty of chances to prove all of that since leaving here, but this will be his fifth team in five seasons. He has led teams past the first round of the playoffs only once in the last nine years. The powerful Houston Rockets were only 13-16 in the playoffs with him, and there’s definitely a pattern here.
Solid numbers, but not championship numbers. Nice guy, but doesn’t like the pressure. Decent player, but doesn’t embrace the work.
Is that the sort of resume you want from someone who is supposed to add complementary energy and commitment to your two superstars? Wouldn’t background guys Joakim Noah or Marreese Speights have been a better fit?
It appears the front office at least shared some of these same concerns. They worked it so they could cut Howard before Jan. 7 and not keep paying on his $2.5-million deal.
But they eventually caved in, for reasons that have as much to do with future seasons as right now. Face it, Howard is here mostly because Anthony Davis wants him here, and because the Lakers desperately need to keep Anthony Davis happy.
Davis, who doesn’t want to play center, wanted a true center to replace the injured DeMarcus Cousins. The Lakers want what Davis wants. He is a free agent after this season, so they will spend every moment in recruitment mode, doing whatever it takes to makes sure he is happy enough to stick around and not gut the franchise for the next seven years.
“The one thing about the franchise, they cater to the players,” LeBron James said last season, and that is what the Lakers are doing here.
But will Howard really make Davis happy? Can he really make the Lakers a better team?
What happens when Howard’s minutes get cut? What happens when he realizes he has to do all the dirty work? When do James and Davis get tired of laboring every night alongside a guy who plays with a constant shrug and smile?
Maybe age really has reshaped Howard. Maybe through all the disappointments he has gained perspective. Maybe now that he’s not the star, maybe now that he’s working from the relative shadows, he can truly embrace the city and its championship hopes.
“I just think over time, as you get older, you start to see life a little different,” Howard said. “I’ve had some time to just really reflect.”
Asked about those changes, Howard demurred, saying, “I’d rather show you guys than say it. … I’d rather my actions be something you can critique instead of just on words.”
For this to work, though, those actions need to scream and fight and compete in a way Dwight Howard never has.