LOS ANGELES—As sad as this season has been for Los Angeles Lakers fans, here is the latest shame:
The silver lining in the great free agent’s epic departure was he would forevermore serve the role of villain for a franchise that sure knows how to make the most of its rivalries.
But when Dwight Howard makes his return against the Lakers at Staples Center on Wednesday night, he has every reason to smile.
Howard arrives on a seven-game winning streak, the longest going in the NBA today; the Lakers are riding a seven-game home losing streak for the first time in franchise history. The 36-17 Houston Rockets are carrying nearly the inverse record of the 18-35 Lakers.
As if the Lakers’ desperate “STAY D12” free-agent campaign wasn’t pathetic enough—has anyone ever not looked desperate when begging someone else to “stay” in a relationship?—the old, broken-down Lakers have now reached a new level of pathetic.
Perhaps the ill will toward Howard runs deep enough that Lakers fans might—might—actually want the Lakers to win Wednesday night. So determined are so many fans to avoid dealing with the current reality that the basic plan is to think drafting some college freshman over some college sophomore will give Kobe Bryant a chance at a championship next season.
The post-Lakers Howard didn’t generate enough votes to be a Western Conference All-Star starter, but he was good enough to be chosen by the coaches for the team.
And there is a clear sense that Howard actually hasn’t played his best basketball of the season yet considering he didn’t score much early in deference to James Harden and Howard’s 1.8 blocks per game this season would stand as his worst defensive output in eight years.
No, Howard has not been totally dominant, and maybe at 28 and after back surgery he is not ascending anymore as a physical marvel, but he has been plenty strong in Houston. There have not been any reports of serious friction or discord, even though there’s little doubt Harden isn’t the easiest partner for anyone.
Harden’s quotes from his All-Star media session do read as a bit curious: “We’re doing something special in Houston. It’s going to take some time, but people are starting to recognize now that me and Dwight are the leaders. … We’re just trying to make it work. Something’s got to give. So we work with each other to make it work—somehow, some way.”
This was Howard’s take from All-Star weekend on his new partnership, with an undercurrent of his usual immodesty: “It’s going great. We’re going to continue to get better. We’re still learning ways that we can make each other better. And once we do that, it’s going to be easier for the rest of the team.
“We talk a lot; we watch film together. And the second half of the season, we will be working out together, just me and him. So we're looking forward to doing that kind of stuff. It’s been great. He’s getting better every day.”
The truth is that wherever Howard decided to go—even if he chose to re-sign with the Lakers—he was going to give a better overall effort there. He was going to be more invested in his new path after choosing it for himself, and that has been the case in Houston.
The gist of the issue has never been about how much Howard likes to joke or have fun—Nick Young has proved this season that you can do all that while showing undeniable passion for the team, same as Ron Artest/Metta World Peace did in his first years as a Laker. Howard’s flaw is not being able to see the world from others’ perspectives and appreciate those perspectives.
Howard’s total inability to make Bryant and Steve Nash feel like he respected how much they wanted to win the 2013 NBA championship undermined the entire premise on which last season’s Lakers group was built.
Howard having that blind spot about putting himself in other people’s shoes makes it absolutely fascinating that he’s as worried as he is about what other people’s eyes see from him.
What went into his decision to post an old photo to his Instagram account of himself dunking on Bryant and the Lakers right before seeing Bryant during All-Star weekend and facing the Lakers afterward? Most likely Howard was just oblivious and liked how defined his muscles looked in the photo.
What was up with Howard mocking Harden’s lack of patch honors on his All-Star jacket? That kind of thing is right in line with the sort of self-absorption and tone deafness that makes Howard a teammate you have to accept as opposed to a teammate who accepts you.
But any Harden-Howard implosion naturally won’t happen until Howard’s goes off his post-signing best behavior and expectations actually become unmet.
Overall, Howard has few stresses as he gets ready to face the Lakers on Wednesday night. This is how he likes it; the record clearly shows he prefers to take the easy way out.
Without Howard, the Lakers loved their early-season chemistry and did steal that one game in Houston in the second week of the season on Steve Blake’s last-second shot, but it has all gone bad for them since then.
Howard’s decision to leave Bryant and Nash has been validated by their inability to stay healthy in what was supposed to be a bounce-back season for both. All realistic hope for the near future rests with Howard.
Of course Howard defaults to the role of the bigger man now.
These days the Lakers could hardly feel smaller.