When the Los Angeles Lakers signed Dwight Howard during 2019 NBA free agency, it was initially a move made out of desperation following an unexpected injury.
DeMarcus Cousins had just torn his ACL (third major injury in as many seasons) during an offseason workout and the Lakers needed to make a move fast. Due to Kawhi Leonard’s prolonged decision to ultimately burn the Lakers for the Los Angeles Clippers, the free agency market had washed up, especially at center.
In need of a center to slot next to JaVale McGee, the Lakers called Howard.
Howard was coming off a 2018-19 NBA season in which he played just nine games for the Washington Wizards before being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, who later waived him. On the verge of being out of the league, Howard had no choice but to accept the team’s one-year ‘prove it’ deal with no guaranteed money. The Lakers hoped Superman was still somewhere inside Howard while he clamored for the opportunity to show the league he was still well worth a roster spot now.
For all intents and purposes, Howard bet on himself.
Fast forward all the way to July — almost a year later — with the league on the verge of returning from a season unlike any other due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Lakers were still reeling from Avery Bradley’s decision to opt out of traveling with them to Orlando, FL due to family and the tables had turned.
Unlike before, Howard held all of the power. The same team that took a chance on him 11 months ago was now hoping he would do the same for them and he did.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Howard plans to play in the season restart and will donate the rest of his salary to the ‘Breath Again’ campaign.
For the Lakers, this serves as a huge sigh of relief due to the fact Howard had become a crucial piece in the team’s success so far. He revitalized his career with the Lakers this season, not only embracing his role off the bench but thriving in it. His decision to travel keeps their championship odds well intact because without him, they might have been in big trouble for a multitude of reasons in Orlando.
On the defensive end, Howard has served as their premier interior defender and heavily contributed to their top-three defensive rating (105.5) in the league. He has become perhaps the league’s best backup center, averaging 7.5 points (73.2 percent shooting from the field), 7.4 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks. On top of that, he also totes the third-highest win shares (5.0) and defensive win shares (2.4) on the Lakers and the fifth-highest defensive rating in the entire league (102.0).
Along with these statistics, Howard also allows the Lakers to stagger minutes between him and McGee. If Howard would have decided to sit out of the season return, the Lakers would be in a very difficult spot. They would have been forced to head into Orlando with McGee as the only true center on the roster, allowing teams to gameplan around just him. With Howard and McGee both being featured, opposing teams have to prepare for both of them in slightly different ways.
While Howard and McGee are both athletic, high-flying centers that primarily capitalize off pick-and-roll opportunities, they each have different tendencies that opposing teams need to plan for. Howard’s subtraction from the team would have made the Lakers defense a much more predictable unit and teams would have been able to just blitz McGee in the hopes of getting him into early foul trouble.
Howard’s decision also helps out one player in particular: Anthony Davis.
Davis has made it known multiple times he does not enjoy playing at center. If Howard would have sat out, the Lakers would have had no choice but to deploy Davis, therefore diminishing his level of play. Throughout the season, Davis has played only 38 percent of his minutes at center compared to 62 percent at power forward. The 38 percent would be the lowest since the 2014-15 season and his dislike for the position has clearly been noted by head coach Frank Vogel.
However, with Howard opting to travel with the team, the Lakers can keep Davis in the spot that he is most productive in and continue to allow him to excel.
Howard had also become a favorite both with Lakers fans and inside the locker room. Converting himself from one of the team’s biggest enemies into one of their biggest heroes. His resurgence was well documented all throughout the season and Lakers fans rejoiced when his deal became fully guaranteed. On the bench, Howard would usually be one of the first Lakers players to his feet whenever one of his teammates manufactured a highlight play. His energy seemed to be infectious and he solidified himself as one of the leading voices in the locker room.
As the Lakers are in pursuit of their 17th championship, they know Howard will be right alongside them. With Los Angeles trying to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in 10 seasons and Howard looking to cement his spot amongst the greatest centers of all time, both parties should be hungry.