There is an assumption amongst fans and basketball analysts that the Los Angeles Lakers will compete for championships in each and every season. While certain players embrace this, it’s fair to wonder whether Dwight Howard is petrified by it all.
From the moment Howard became a Laker, people stopped expecting his greatness and instead demanded it. Despite his back injury, he rushed to rejoin his teammates once 2012-13 training camp opened.
Howard’s play was occasionally uneven as a result of his physical limitations, and yet he faced constant criticism. Even worse, midway through the 2012-13 season, the big man suffered a shoulder injury and missed a few games.
Although the three-time Defensive Player of the Year was nursing two injuries, many clamored for him to tough it out and play. Teammates and former players questioned his toughness and consequently forced him to get back on the hardwood.
The Lakers are arguably the most popular franchise in the league and also have incredibly high standards. Thus, excellence is expected.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol have led the Lakers to the mountaintop in previous seasons. The addition of Howard was supposed to be the chest piece that restored the Purple and Gold’s championship glory.
Instead, the 2012-13 Lakers faced multiple injuries and were swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Fair or not, this put the bulk of the blame squarely on Howard’s shoulders.
An argument can be made that save for Hakeem Olajuwon, the most dominant centers in NBA history have all played for the Lakers and led them to titles. The list features George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
From the moment Howard arrived in Lakerland, he seemed destined to join the group of talented Laker big men that won championships. Whether the Purple and Gold won the 2013 title or not, many anticipated they would come close.
They didn't manage to win a single game, and D12's future with the team remains in doubt.
With the big man entering free agency in the 2013 offseason, there are a couple of teams lining up for his services. Chief among them is the Houston Rockets.
They are a young and talented team featuring an emerging superstar in the 23-year-old James Harden. In addition, they have cheap talent on the roster, which makes acquiring quality players, via trade or free agency, a fluid process.
Houston’s offense is based on two sound offensive principles: generating shots directly at the basket and launching three-pointers with great regularity.
Per Hoopdata, the Rockets were in the top three in both categories during the 2012-13 campaign. Such an offense is perfectly suited for Howard’s talents given that he favors scoring directly at the rim.
The three-point shooting will free him from double-teams and remove some of the decision-making from his post-ups. According to Synergy Sports, he turned the ball over on 18.2 percent of his post-up attempts in 2012-13. That figure represents the second most likely situation in which he coughed up the ball.
The Rockets’ core philosophies, as well as their roster, certainly make them an intriguing suitor for Howard’s talents. One might even say they are an ideal fit.
In addition, Houston lacks the tradition and huge expectations the Lakers have. Since the 1999-00 season, the Rockets have been playoff participants a mere six times and played in the second round only once.
Needless to say, the franchise isn’t fluent in the language of championships, and that might serve Howard’s interests.
Signing with the Rockets and potentially leading them to the Western Conference finals would be a monumental achievement for a team that hasn’t reached that round since the 1997 playoffs.
Exiting Los Angeles and moving to Houston would also reduce the media coverage on Howard. The Lakers play in one of the biggest markets in the country and that put a fairly large spotlight on Howard’s play as well as his actions.
Howard created controversies at times and saw his blunders reach the national stage given the extensive coverage.
In Houston, the superstar center will more than likely become a big target, but nothing like he was in Los Angeles.
Howard was at his best when playing with the Orlando Magic. He performed at a peak level and avoided unwanted media coverage. He only became a national story when word got out that he wished to leave the state of Florida.
That happened to coincide with the season he suffered a back injury that robbed him of his athleticism and mobility.
Regaining his physical form is obviously the most important aspect for him to once again become a dominant player, but releasing the massive weight of expectations directed at him might be the best remedy for his back.
Houston fell in love with Hakeem Olajuwon and the back-to-back championships he gave the franchise. The city also shared a deep level of affection for Yao Ming despite his short career and relatively unimpressive postseason record.
Howard can forge his own legacy with the Rockets and do so on his terms. Perhaps following in the footsteps of Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal just isn’t the path for him.
On the other hand, history has taught us that winning with the Lakers turns a superstar into an immortal legend. As much as the all-time greats have enhanced the Laker legacy, the franchise has done just as much for the players.