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Column: Dwight Howard isn’t his old self, but he may be what Lakers need

Lakers’ Dwight Howard (39) grabs a rebound in front of Utah Jazz’s Ed Davis (17) and Mike Conley (10), as he is fouled by Joe Ingles (2), during the first half at Staples Center on Friday.
Lakers’ Dwight Howard (39) grabs a rebound in front of Utah Jazz’s Ed Davis (17) and Mike Conley (10), as he is fouled by Joe Ingles (2), during the first half at Staples Center on Friday.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Dwight Howard planted his feet inside the purple Staples Center paint Friday as he caught a pass and bent his knees, ready to spring toward the sky. We’ve seen it before, Howard flying, a red Superman cape flowing in the air behind him, on the way to a slam dunk contest championship.

But things change, and Howard’s time with the Lakers is the greatest reminder of it.

Those feet he planted? They were inside Kobe Bryant’s signature shoes. And that air he was gliding through? This time it shoved him back.

Howard didn’t come close to a slam dunk, badly turning a signature dunk into a missed layup.

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But just because his body is failing him, it doesn’t mean he can’t be a success story for the Lakers.

Even if he’s “60%, tops” of what he used to be, which one longtime scout said during the Lakers’ 95-86 win against Utah, Howard showed just how he could matter this season.

His attitude, Lakers players and coaches say, has been terrific. His effort Friday against the Jazz was consistently wonderful. He was a positive on the court and helped make the game easier for his teammates.

And he did it without scoring a point until the final two minutes.

Danny Green formally introduces himself, Anthony Davis plays some center and LeBron James scores 32 points as the new-look Lakers continue to establish their identity in 95-86 win over Jazz.

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Howard played 19 minutes and grabbed seven rebounds to go with two steals and two blocks. The Lakers were plus-13 with him on the floor, second best on the team to LeBron James’ plus-17 rating.

See, the Lakers don’t need the old Dwight. The point-scoring, post-up craving, locker-room dividing All-Star that has seen his reputation around the NBA plummet as his body began to break down. Nope, this screen-setting, rebound-grabbing, hard-trying version of a back-up big man is more than adequate.

Isn’t this what the Lakers were hoping for when they rescued Howard from the free-agency abyss?

“Exactly,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.

“He didn’t get the ball one time in the low post because that’s not his role on this team.”

But, as Vogel said, Howard set a tone with his physicality around the rim.

Lakers center Dwight Howard, left, grabs a rebound in front of Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale during the first half of Friday’s win.
Lakers center Dwight Howard, left, grabs a rebound in front of Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale during the first half of Friday’s win.
(Getty Images)

In his first stretch against the Jazz, Howard played with an energy that helped spark the Lakers’ bench, fighting for offensive rebounds, bouncing between ball handlers and shooters to defend near the basket and erasing a Mike Conley shot.

In the second half, it was more of the same, the only real miscues coming on a couple of effort-driven off-the-ball fouls.

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It’s early, but games like this one have to give the Lakers hope that Howard could be a valuable part of their rotation this season.

“He just patrols the paint for us,” Vogel said.

Still, there are reasons to be skeptical about the arrangement’s long-term viability. Howard’s still not too far removed from what he’s described as rock bottom. Could some success in a limited role spark a hunger for more shots and more chances to score?

And his focus, especially late in the game, wandered as he stayed on the court for the final minutes of the easy win.

His hard foul on Utah’s Georges Niang with 28 seconds left was totally unwarranted and correctly ruled a flagrant foul.

But this kind of reboot has to come with hiccups. Transitioning from a Hall of Fame player, a focal point on offense and defense into a backup whose role will be determined on a game-to-game basis can’t be easy.

There are reasons why so many players haven’t been able to pull it off.

But even if Howard’s body isn’t what it used to be, the Lakers can take comfort that his mindset might not be what it used to be either.

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“He came in, played huge minutes for us and did a great job,” Anthony Davis said. “Anytime we can get big minutes out of Dwight, it’ll be a help for us.”

Just help. It’s all the Lakers are asking.


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