5 Things We Learned from Dwight Howard's LA Lakers Debut
It's real. It's all finally so unbelievably real.
Okay, so maybe the situation isn't quite so dire for the 29 Dwight-less teams out there. After all, the Sacramento Kings managed to dampen Dwight's Lakers debut on Sunday by way of a 99-92 result in favor of the visitors.
As the final score suggests, the sailing was hardly smooth all the way through for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year and his superstar compadres. There were miscues, missed assignments, botched opportunities and turnovers to seemingly no end.
The loss was the Lakers' sixth in as many tries this month, though the mark need not be of consequence since, well, it's still the preseason. And Howard's first go-round in purple and gold wasn't lacking for superlatives either.
But what's there to take away from Dwight's first dance with the home team at the Staples Center—good, bad, ugly and otherwise?
He's the Real Deal on D
Here's a newsflash for you: Dwight Howard is good at playing defense.
Is that what those three Defensive Player of the Year awards and five All-Defensive selections were about?
Must be. Dwight looked as active and energetic as ever on the defensive end on Sunday. He finished the evening with 12 rebounds (eight defensive) and four blocks, which doesn't account for the scores of other shots that he pursued and altered merely by being Dwight Howard.
As Pau Gasol told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com regarding his new frontcourt friend:
He's a guy that defensively covers a lot of ground. He's very athletic, he alters a lot of shots, you feel like you have a safety right behind you. We can't rely on him all the time to do that. We have to keep guys in front of us. But he's always going to be active to block shots because he's such a force in there.
A sight for Gasol's sore eyes, to be sure, not to mention those of everyone who watched the Lakers for years with unease, wondering what they'd see from Andrew Bynum on any given night. At times during his stay in L.A., Bynum looked like a shot-swatting savant, needing only to position his long arms, wide hands and massive frame properly to single handedly alter the complexion of a game.
And then there were those other times when Bynum's head clearly wasn't in the game and opponents could waltz their way through the paint without complaint.
That won't likely be an issue for Howard, who dominates on the defensive end more naturally and with greater ease than you and I draw breath. Even during his final days with the Orlando Magic, Dwight remained a force to be reckoned with on that end of the floor.
Don't expect that to change now that he's seemingly left the drama behind.
He'll Scratch Their Backs...
Dwight's domineering displays only figure to make the game that much easier for his teammates, the majority of whom are stuck on the wrong side of 30. As he showed on Sunday night, Dwight can erase the mistakes made by the aging legs and gambling hands of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace on the perimeter while also holding his own man to man.
ESPN's J.A. Adande also pointed out rather astutely that the Lakers' porous transition defense should improve by virtue of having Howard on the floor.
Not that the Lakers can count on Dwight to sprint back and contest every time the ball leaks out. Rather, the opposition won't be able to push the pace so readily if the Lakers drop the ball through the hoop as easily or as accurately as they did with their shiny new center on the floor. Nor will the Lakers be concerned about giving up opportunities in transition if teams feel the need to send Dwight to the free-throw line so frequently, even if he doesn't always convert.
The results are already rather astounding. After surrendering an average of 27 fast-break points over their previous three games, the Lakers limited the Kings to just 11 such points on Sunday with Dwight Howard on hand.
Dwight's impact wasn't lost on the offense either. Time and again, defenders were afraid to leave Howard's hip and, if anything, were more prone to glomming onto the big man in the paint.
The formula was laid plain during L.A.'s opening possession: The ball goes to Dwight, the defense flocks to him, Howard kicks the ball out to Kobe Bryant, and the Black Mamba swishes home an uncontested three-pointer.
From then on, Dwight was as much a decoy on the offensive end as anything. Even Metta World Peace wound up with a wide-open baseline drive for a layup on account of Dwight's magnetism.
As Steve Nash, another of the Lakers' new weapons, said after the game:
He made the game easier for everyone. He's such a presence and takes up so much space when he just rolls to the basket. So, it's a gift to play with someone like that.
...And They'll Scratch His
For all the "giving" Dwight did during his first night as a Laker, he got just as much in return from his new teammates.
His 19 points (on 8-of-12 shooting) emanated as much from his sheer force of will in the post as they did from free movement around the floor and pinpoint passes delivered by Kobe, Nash, Gasol and company.
Everyone and their mother anticipated a pick-and-roll extravaganza in L.A.—with Nash, the game's best pick-and-roll maestro, and Howard, the most effective pick-and-roll finisher—and Sunday's outing certainly didn't disappoint. On the Lakers' second possession of the game, Dwight screened for Nash, rolled to the basket and caught a luscious lob from Gasol, which he summarily slammed through for his first points (albeit ultimately meaningless ones) as a Laker.
Even Kobe, notorious for his supposed aversion to passing, got in on the two-man act with Dwight. The first connection came on a bounce pass that Howard bobbled a bit before delivering for a hoop-and-harm. Later on, the two superstars tangoed again, this time with Bryant delivering a sky-high teardrop pass that Howard flushed home with authority.
Howard has never had the privilege of playing in the NBA with even one teammate as talented as any of the other three studs in L.A.'s starting five. Something tells me he won't mind all the easy opportunities that this new arrangement yields for him, especially after years of getting pounded by double- and triple-teams in Orlando.
Dwight Must Dust off the Rust
To be sure, Dwight still has a ways to go before he'll be in peak form for the Lakers. He looked rather rusty in his preseason debut, as one might expect of a guy who hadn't played in six months on account of major back surgery.
There were the five turnovers, the times he was stripped of the ball in the post, the occasional missed play on defense on account of mistimed jumps and, surprisingly enough for the NBA's most prolific rebounder, a handful of botched box-outs.
None more embarrassing than this situation, of which Kings rookie Thomas Robinson took full advantage.
Lakers head coach Mike Brown spoke candidly of Howard's issues after the game:
You could tell his timing was a little bit off at times. A couple of times where he probably would have blocked the shot he was maybe a half a step late and then offensively at times he was half a step late in certain areas but overall, I thought he looked good.
Even Dwight admitted that he fell short in some ways, as he told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, "I even forgot some of my pregame rituals. I'll get it back."
Maybe not the free-throw shooting (3-of-8), but in time, Dwight should rediscover the finer points of his game.
More importantly, he showed few (if any) ill effects from his previously troublesome back. Howard took a hard fall during the game when Kings center DeMarcus Cousins shoved him to the floor following a putback. When asked about how he felt afterward, Dwight told the attendant media:
I didn't really feel anything. I'm going to have some tough falls because I play hard and like to try to block all those shots. But, it was cool. I don't feel anything.
He'll Need Some Time to Adjust
There's more to Dwight's future success with the Lakers than just a healthy back, though. Even once Howard is back in peak basketball shape, he'll need time to adjust to his new teammates, both on the floor and in the locker room and integrate himself into the organization's overarching schema.
The pain in Dwight's back may be gone, but the pains of his growth with L.A.'s new superstar squad are just beginning. His initial game in purple and gold gave fans more than a few glimpses of a guy who, on occasion, seemed out of place on the floor, as if he didn't know where to be and when.
Whatever the causes of Howard's confusion—the lack of a carefully established role, a still-elementary grasp of the Princeton offense, etc.—the burden of the bewilderment was not his alone to bear. This whole four-star concept is and will be a work-in-progress for some time for the Lakers and may not yield particularly pleasant results for the first few months of the regular season.
Still, with so much veteran talent on hand, it's only a matter of time until Dwight is able to thrive with his Lakers teammates and until they're able to do so with him.
In the meantime, any failures or shortfalls (aside from successes and signs of progress) won't be for lack of effort or concern. If there's anything Dwight made crystal clear during his first night in uniform, it's that he cares. Heck, even the announcement of the starting five got him all choked up:
I actually shed a couple tears tonight during the starting lineups. One of my teammates caught me so I had to like try to hide it. I was just excited and a little emotional because I haven't been on the court in awhile.
And if Dwight Howard is so moved to hear public address announcer Lawrence Tanter bellow out his name ahead of a preseason game, imagine how energized he'll be once it all actually means something.