Biggest Questions Dwight Howard Will Have to Answer Once He's Healthy
To be clear, we're not talking about the larger, team-wide issues that have buried the Lakers this year. It would be unfair to expect Howard to think up solutions for L.A.'s lack of chemistry, inability to defend and confounding coaching.
Those are questions Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has to answer.
Although, seeing as Kupchak is the guy who assembled L.A.'s malfunctioning machine, he might not be the best option to diagnose the problem.
What we're suggesting is that Howard's time off will provide an opportunity for him to think about some of the biggest questions that he, personally, is facing this year.
Self-evaluation is always tough, though. So we'll help Howard out by suggesting some points to ponder. And as long as we’re pretending he’ll ever read this, we may as well mention that it is our sincerest hope that he takes these questions in the constructive spirit in which they’re intended.
Here you go, Dwight. Put on your thinking cap, because you’re going to have to answer the five following queries when you return to the court.
Can He Get Along with Kobe Bryant?
The mini war of words between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard started with both players clashing (unironically) about the feasibility of having a team with two alpha males (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com).
Bryant claimed it could never work over a long period. Howard pretty much made things personal, taking an obvious shot at Bryant when informed of his teammate's opinion:
Dwight: "My presence is felt every day and I don't have to come here and growl and snarl at people."— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) January 6, 2013
Of course, they laughed it off and released a picture depicting the pair engaging in mock fisticuffs as Mike D’Antoni looked on.
Here’s the thing, though: That photo was a deliberate attempt to show that all was well. It was contrived. The spat between Bryant and Howard wasn’t; it was organic.
Going forward, Bryant and Howard aren't ever going to be friends. But they'll need to at least keep things professionally amicable for the Lakers to have any hope of turning things around. Based on what they're saying publicly, that seems like a pretty tall order.
Will He Ever Be the Same Player He Was in Orlando?
Dwight Howard was, in his younger years, the single most athletically gifted big man in the game. He leapt over or bulled through everyone that stood in his way. But more than that, his other unique physical abilities seemed perfectly suited to playing ridiculously good interior defense.
His feet were quick, and he seemed to innately understand how to shuttle side to side in the lane as a help defender.
His shot-blocking timing was second to none.
His second and third jumps were cat-quick, allowing him to contest shots and still recover in time to corral rebounds while everyone else was still glued to the floor.
That version of Howard may never exist again, thanks to the natural progression of age and the more abrupt alterations made by a surgeon’s knife.
Predicting the physical future for Howard is tough, but based on what we’re seeing in the present, there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever get all the way back to the player he was in Orlando.
What we’ve also got to remember is that Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard during his best seasons, is a brilliant defensive mind. His guidance and schemes transformed Howard from unrefined uranium into a guided nuclear missile…if missiles were awesome weak-side defenders.
It’s easy to knock Mike D’Antoni for his apparent inability to coach defense, but the fact is that nobody is ever going to get more out of Howard on D than Van Gundy did.
Howard can certainly make adjustments as he ages, and there’s always a chance he replaces some of his past athleticism with an improved mental approach (see: Tim Duncan), but it’s simply unrealistic to imagine any way to recreate the perfect storm we saw in Orlando.
Can He Develop an Edge?
Since he entered the league in 2004, Dwight Howard has cultivated a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving image. In his early years, you’d always see him dancing, goofing off and generally conducting himself like a carefree kid.
That persona, combined with his man-child physique and 1,000-watt smile made him something of a darling among fans and media alike.
But the days of costumed hijinks in the dunk contest are long gone, replaced by an ugly saga in Orlando that gave everyone a peek behind the curtain of Howard’s elaborately constructed façade. We learned he was a malcontent, selfish and possibly even a little conniving in his final months in Orlando.
He got a well-respected coach fired, hamstrung the organization that was trying to trade him by acting like an indecisive child and basically torpedoed whatever good will he had accumulated to that point.
So now that everyone seems to understand that Howard’s not really the “all smiles” guy he pretended to be, why won’t he just embrace the role of the heel and get a little mean?
The Lakers desperately need an edge, and at this point, Howard has to develop one in order to dissuade those who are starting to think that maybe winning isn’t very high on his list of priorities.
Nobody’s suggesting that Howard should start doling out elbows like the second coming of Charles Oakley, but a little mean streak certainly couldn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, nothing we’ve seen from Howard to this point suggests he’s got a harder edge in him. And eight years into his career, it’s difficult to envision such a sudden change.
That’s too bad, because the Lakers definitely need somebody besides Kobe Bryant who won’t go down without a fight.
Does He Want to Be in L.A.?
This is the $100 million question, isn't it?
Howard probably thought he was walking into a dream scenario when he found himself in Los Angeles, but as everyone who’s been paying attention knows, it’s been nothing short of a nightmare in Lakerland.
With an aging roster and nobody besides Steve Nash—who’s 38 years old—committed to sticking around past next year, it’s pretty hard to come up with a hypothetical pitch for Howard to stay in L.A.
Sure, you’ve got the sunshine and high profile that comes with being a Laker, but with the way things have gone so far, a fresh start might be a little more appealing.
Howard has said he knows where he wants to play next year, and the fact that he coyly withheld the specific location is mostly just annoying. But really, if he knew he wanted to be a Laker for the long haul, he could have just said so.
If he sticks around, Howard can make nearly $100 million with the Lakers, more than he'll be able to get from any other team. But it's a bad sign that the money is the biggest incentive to keep Howard around.
Based on what he has said so far, Howard is, at best, undecided. At worst, he’s got his bags packed.
How Will We Remember Him?
Legacies are important in sports, and it's not too late for Dwight Howard to redefine his.
If it all ended today, Howard would probably be remembered as a supreme talent whose ego-driven mistakes cost him a chance at being an all-time great. That sounds harsh, but at this point, it's true.
If we're being realistic, there's almost no chance Howard can save the Lakers this season. Even if he magically returned to the form he had two or three years ago, L.A. has dug itself too deep a hole to climb all the way out of. There are just too many issues that can't be fixed.
But thinking long term, Howard can take steps this season to alter the path he's currently on. And the way he can do that is by adding the edge we discussed, showing he's mature enough to make winning his top priority and putting his team before himself.
Nobody can say how Howard's career or the Lakers' future will shake out, but he should at least be thinking about how he'd like the story to end.