Los Angeles Lakers fans are not accustomed to envying other teams, but that might very well be the case with the Houston Rockets because of Dwight Howard.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year spurned the Purple and Gold during the 2013 offseason and joined the Rockets. People generally do not leave the Lakers unless the franchise makes that decision itself.
And in some cases, there are players that seemingly short-circuit when Los Angeles no longer needs them. Harsh or not, that helps fans cope on some level with the idea that one of their own is no longer part of the team.
In the case of Howard though, the process will not be as easy. The former Orlando Magic center was acquired via trade by the Lakers and almost immediately, Kobe Bryant and company were expected to make the NBA Finals.
Howard was coming off a back injury that affected his mobility, but his presence alone brought grand expectations. The big man missed a few games because of less than stellar health, but he found ways to produce.
Indeed, Howard led the league in rebounding during his lone season in Los Angeles and also, he made the Lakers a respectable defensive team. Still, he was a shell of his former self for most of 2012-13.
He struggled in Mike D’Antoni’s offense because it heavily emphasized Bryant’s talents at his expense. Furthermore, his relationship with the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer hurt the team. Former Laker player Antawn Jamison offered as much to Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com:
Whatever you say happened between the coaching staff, Kobe and Dwight—it was a combination of everything. Not understanding roles. Not being up front with roles. Our two superstars didn’t get along. Inside the organization as far as which coach to bring in. With that talent, that’s tough to deal with. But of course, championships and successful seasons don’t run because of what’s on the roster. You have to deal with injuries, you have to deal with certain situations that we just didn’t handle the situations at all.
This obviously explains Howard’s rationale in reportedly requesting the dismissal of D’Antoni and amnesty of Bryant as criteria needed for his return to the Lakers.
Despite a nightmarish 2012-13 campaign for the Lakers, the consensus was that the fans wanted him back. The best center in basketball was the key in helping Bryant secure a sixth world title.
Thus, the L.A. faithful ignored his on-court demeanor, free-throw shooting as well as his propensity for getting thrown out of games. Heck, even the woe-is-me attitude he portrayed in the media was largely forgiven within the confines of Lakers territory.
All of that changed once he signed with the enemy. Howard became to Lakers fans what Brett Favre eventually morphed into for those that follow the Green Bay Packers.
Granted, Favre spent the bulk of his career with the Packers, which makes the comparison a little uneven. Still, Favre was viewed as a diva that craved the national spotlight and needed the world to revolve around him.
The Lakers have never chased one of their own players with the hope of retaining him. These are the Lakers after all. And yet, once the free-agency period began, Mitch Kupchak was quick to put up billboards asking that Howard remain in L.A.
It was all for naught. Howard looked at the Lakers’ five-year contract offer and passed. Instead, he signed up to play in Texas with younger players, one of which is the best 2-guard in the league according to an NBA GM survey: James Harden.
For all the ruckus Howard’s departure caused, it was not that big of a deal. After all, he spent more time smiling on the court than meshing with his teammates. The seven-time All-Star does not approach the stature of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Shaquille O’Neal in the pantheon of great Lakers centers.
Let’s not forget, there was once upon a time an argument with respect to whether Howard was superior to Andrew Bynum. During his best years, the oft-injured center did not match Howard’s defensive brilliance, but he was certainly more aesthetically pleasing with the ball in his hands in the low post.
Also, he hit his fair share of free throws, north of 65 percent for his career actually. So forgive Lakers fans for thinking for just a moment that Howard was perhaps a bit overrated and that perhaps, the Purple and Gold might have dodged a bullet.
Well, at least that’s the best way to rationalize it.
The reality is entirely less comforting and also, a tough pill to swallow for those with a fondness for the franchise Jerry Buss glamorized. Howard has looked incredibly dominant in Houston.
It appears as though he will lead the league in rebounding once again, and he also looks like a defensive beast. Opponents are afraid of venturing into the paint for fear of running into the former slam dunk champion.
When healthy and engaged, Howard is one of the five best players in basketball. That is the case now with his new team and in truth, it would be impossible for Lakers fans not to be a little jealous given that the athlete they saw play for their favorite team was barely a top-10 NBA talent.
Indeed, Kevin McHale has asked his defensive ace to rebound, set screens, defend and utilize a few offensive possessions. Howard has happily accepted this role, which is somewhat of a slap in the face to the Lakers organization.
The requirements Houston has made of Howard are for the most part the same Los Angeles had made. And yet, Howard was reluctant to accept such requests in Los Angeles.
Out of fairness to Howard, one must point out that he brought effort from Day 1 in the City of Angels. Despite his less-than-stellar health, he rushed to return from his back injury to play alongside his teammates in his lone campaign in California.
Mind you, he never truly integrated himself into the organization’s culture. He mostly had the feel of an outsider trying to figure out where he fit. Howard was an alien of sorts with the Purple and Gold.
Perhaps the sizable egos prevented him from establishing himself with the team, but that might be a bit of a cop-out. After all, Howard is now firmly entrenched into the Rockets’ culture and all he needed was a training camp to do so.
In watching him from afar, Howard seems happy and invested with his new team. Lakers fans probably want to put him behind them and move on but the roster the front office put together prevents that from happening.
Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Chris Kaman were brought in to replace some of the production of the departed Howard, but they do not have the cachet nor the talent to do so.
Their presence on the roster is a constant reminder of what Los Angeles had once upon a time. Thus, moving on is incredibly difficult in this instance, especially when Howard is completely healthy and Bryant is still rehabbing his Achilles injury.
The Lakers are superstar-less, and it’s really not a particularly enjoyable period. The wounds are on the verge of scarring, but the Purple and Gold will see the blood pour out once again when they face off against Howard’s Rockets.
The big man will more than likely conduct odd interviews leading up to the game, smile throughout the entirety of the contest and miss a multitude of free throws. All of the maddening traits that have become synonymous with Howard will be on full display.
The most frustrating part of it all for the Lakers faithful is that Howard will dominate the game and probably lead Houston to victory. As much as the saga must come to an end, Howard will not allow it.
He is too talented and thus too relevant for supporters of the Purple and Gold to forget him.