LOS ANGELES — Dwight Howard is just a bit player on the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers, but his presence on the roster is a not-so-subtle reminder of the team's stakes surrounding All-Star forward Anthony Davis.
Both have been elite big men, acquired by the Lakers at great cost while heading into the final years of their respective contracts.
The price for Howard's 2012 arrival, in retrospect, wasn't especially egregious. Andrew Bynum (a key piece sent out by the Lakers) didn't stay healthy, and protections on the draft picks sent to the Orlando Magic coincided perfectly with the team's poor performance over the next few years (post-Kobe Bryant's Achilles injury).
"Right now, it's about today and I'm here with the Lakers and that's the only thing that matters," Howard said at his introductory press conference in 2012. "Whatever happens a year from now we'll wait until that time. Right now, it's all about the Lakers and me starting fresh."
The Lakers made a similar move this past summer to acquire Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans, giving up multiple first-round picks and young, emerging players like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart. Perhaps the cost won't seem as high over time. But on paper, Los Angeles gave up more to get Davis than it did for Howard seven years ago.
The price paid may reflect greater confidence in a long-term marriage with Davis, but that's easier to say in hindsight. At the time, the Lakers expected Howard to play more than just one year with Bryant before leaving for the Houston Rockets in free agency.
But why would Davis get a pass when Howard was scrutinized throughout his original brief run with the team?
"I just want to focus on this year," Davis said at the Lakers' media day in late September. "It's about what we can do this year. We have a special team, a special unit, a special coaching staff. We're going to do whatever we can do to focus on this year and come out victorious."
His words were dangerously close to Howard's seven years ago, who said, when pressed, "I'm happy to be here and that's the only thing that matters now."
Howard's 2013 departure shouldn't have been a surprise. He never seemed fully invested in his future in Los Angeles. However, the Lakers would be absolutely devastated if they lost Davis next July.
"[Davis] is a great human being. He cares about winning," said an executive familiar with the Pelicans front office throughout the Davis saga, prior to the firing of then-general manager Dell Demps. "[Davis] cares about people. He doesn't need to be 'the guy.'"
But the NBA is a business. Relationships are easily torn asunder, as the Pelicans saw a year ago.
"At some point, if you draft [a player like Davis] and they're playing at an All-NBA level for all these years, and we haven't won that much (once getting to the second round isn't good enough), that's the 800-pound gorilla in the room," the executive said. "That's always there. You have a clock. That's how it is."
The Lakers are also on the clock and now have just a season to convince Davis to stay long-term. They hope a fruitful playoff run will be enough. The goal, naturally, is a championship. But absent that, Los Angeles still expects to keep its 26-year-old All-Star forward.
Perhaps that's an arrogant approach. But while Howard and Davis may have joined the Lakers under similar circumstances, their situations were also very different.
As Howard worked to leave the Magic, he pushed for a trade to the then-New Jersey Nets. But a deal never materialized. Gradually, the Lakers become the only viable option, and Howard's arrival seemed more haphazard than deliberate.
Davis set his path to Los Angeles in motion when he joined Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, LeBron James' long-time agent.
"When he hired Rich, he changed. I'm not saying for the worse or the better, but he just changed his approach," the executive said of Davis' new allegiance. "It was just a feel. I can't sit here and say that he dogged it or didn't work hard or anything like that. He put in the work. He did what he had to do."
"It just wasn't good enough for that situation," he continued, noting early-season injuries snowballed until Davis made his trade demand. "History will tell you: If you have a superstar and you're not winning, he's going to move on."
The Lakers tried to acquire Davis before last February's trade deadline. And while the deal lingered until July, it felt predestined that he would join James in L.A.
That's the fundamental difference between Howard and Davis: Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James.
"I think where [Davis] might be getting a pass, when Dwight came over, the situation was this was Kobe's team," the executive said. "Whereas Dwight was like, 'I'm doing it my way because I went to the NBA Finals … I got [former Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy] fired.' People are going to listen to me. He let it go to his head."
Bryant and Howard never bonded off the court; they barely coalesced between the lines. In the locker room, Howard would seem to bristle when the postgame media throng would abandon him the moment Bryant appeared at his locker for interviews.
As a precursor to staying with the Lakers, Howard reportedly urged the Lakers to use their one-time amnesty provision, a feature of the NBA's previous collective bargaining agreement, to cut an injured Bryant loose, as reported by ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein.
Years later, Bryant would call Howard "soft" when playing against the Rockets.
Conversely, Davis and James are close. James has gone out of his way to say the Lakers would be remiss not to run their offense through Davis. The two were often seen in public together, be it at summer league or a WNBA playoff game. James even brought Davis into the production of Space Jam 2.
The two have chemistry and friendship that may be the Lakers' saving grace.
"LeBron has the same expectations [as Bryant], but he's not that type of leader. Anthony is not an alpha; Dwight thought he was an alpha," the executive said. "Dwight thought he was right. You can't tell him anything. Whereas Anthony is a lot more open to criticism from guys who have done it."
Meanwhile, Howard is working diligently in the background during his second L.A. stint, humbly striving to make sure the Lakers choose to keep him on his $2.6 million non-guaranteed contract. He doesn't have the same lift when he jumps, but he may be able to help the Lakers with his defense, rebounding, screen-setting and occasional basket.
He's also a constant reminder of the stakes. The team's last playoff appearance was at Staples Center in 2013 against the San Antonio Spurs, a first-round sweep in which he was ejected early from Game 4.
The Lakers entered that campaign with high hopes. After a difficult start with multiple injuries, they found their groove and were a dangerous threat nearing the playoffs. Bryant's Achilles injury ended that hope, and they're still trying to recover.
Howard may even prove a valuable part of why this new team goes further—and, in turn, why Davis has a positive experience.
Davis may not face the same scrutiny this year that Howard saw over a half-decade ago. But he faces a similar decision. He could leave the Lakers high and dry just like Howard, though his relationship with James should give Los Angeles some level of comfort that history won't repeat itself.
As long as James is happy with the Lakers' direction after the season, Davis should be along for the ride.