What seems like a lifetime ago, Dwight Howard and LeBron James were the two best players in the NBA. They competed for MVP nods, for defensive player of the year and traded blows in the playoffs.
These days Howard does his best not to think about that time.
“Back then I was always focused on the future, and now I don’t want to focus on the past,” Howard said. “A lot of times when we do that we tend to forget the moment that we’re in.”
The moment in which Howard now finds himself involves a battle with JaVale McGee for a starting role on a team James hopes to lead to a championship. Howard played in only nine games last season after having surgery and was traded away by the Washington Wizards. He’s been on six teams in the past five years and entered this season humbled and on a one-year minimum non-guaranteed contract.
Given all of that, few expected the Lakers’ center position to feature a true competition. But that is exactly what’s developed. McGee and Howard have both scrimmaged on the first team as Lakers coach Frank Vogel determines the best fits next to James and star forward Anthony Davis.
“Our centers have really impressed me – both Dwight and JaVale,” Vogel said. “JaVale’s performing at a really high level. Dwight Howard has been all business since he came in this time around. We’re asking our whole group to have a seriousness about ourselves. He’s been an all-business type of guy. It’s really helped us to be focused and working on the task at hand.”
While Howard, 33, entered the league as a celebrated first overall pick who dominated the league for several years, McGee, 31, was a mid-first round pick traded during his rookie deal. A two-year stint with the Golden State Warriors resulted in two championships and gave McGee’s career a boost.
He became the Lakers starting center last year and not much has changed for McGee personally.
“Doing the same thing I was doing last year,” he said. “Being my vegan self. Working hard, lifting every day. Just trying to be the best center for the Los Angeles Lakers I can be.”
His familiarity with James has been helpful.
“It’s a lot easier to play with him just because you know exactly where you need to be,” McGee said. “You know what he’s going to do. He’ll find you if the opportunity comes. It’s just a great thing knowing exactly what’s going to happen this year and who I’m playing with.”
McGee came into the season expecting to compete with DeMarcus Cousins for playing time. But when Cousins suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Lakers brought in Howard.
If McGee had any preconceived notions of what Howard would be like, he didn’t share them. But he has noticed Howard’s serious demeanor just like Vogel and others have.
Said Anthony Davis: “Dwight has it on his mind that he wants to help this team win. And whatever that entails, he’s going to do it. He wants to have his second run in L.A. be a great one. … He’s been all about business from Day 1.”
For Howard, that’s part of what he needs to show his team. For years, he’s been accused of not taking basketball seriously enough. And while Howard disagrees with that characterization, he understands that he needs to change that perception.
Rather than look to the future now, he’s treating his time with the Lakers as precious. Having missed nearly all of last year after lower back surgery, this feels new to Howard in many ways.
“As humans and as basketball players and professional athletes we are built up by what people say,” Howard said. “For me it was like none of that stuff really matters. I can’t take anything with me when I die but what lives on is my name and I want that to be great. I want to make sure when people say my name, when my kids think about me, my grandkids, this city, that’s what I want.”
So far with the Lakers, he’s been a man of his word.