If it is Lakers vs. Dwight Howard you can bet there is going to be something dramatic. Just because Kobe is gone doesn’t mean fans have drowned the torch in kumbaya waters and have forgiven Howard. Last night the Lakers roughed up Howard and the Hawks, though, to be fair, Howard got his: 19 points and 9 rebounds. He scored more than his season high, (14.4) but he had fewer rebounds (12.6) against a Lakers front court that is 9th in rebounding.
Why all the Howard-L.A. shade?
Kobe’s impact in town will be felt for years to come, particularly how Bryant incentivized toughenss. In a battle of wills, Howard came up short. Laker fans don’t mind in-house fights. They survived Kobe and Shaq. When Howard was traded to the Lakers in the summerof 2012, fans wanted to know if he had the toughness to be in a town that is Lakers 24-7?
The answer was no. Howard skipped town, making sure to thank Mitch Kupchak on his way out. His Lakers experience was a one year nightmare he wanted to forget. But the L.A. fans just won’t let it go. Howard represents what they hate most in a professional athlete, the inability to be real and instead clinging to an image of likeability when inside you are seething.
For Howard though, leaving L.A. was a simple equation Howard was going to complete the one-two punch of a James Harden duo. He was going to excel in a way he was never allowed to in Los Angeles. Everything seemed to be in Howard’s favor as he changed addresses. Unlike ruthless Kobe Bryant, James Harden was a friendly superstar who had an easy going nature. He didn’t have the burning desire to make his teammates accountable when they screwed up. He didn’t push teammates into uncomfortable emotional spaces. He didn’t demand perfect; Harden didn’t demand anything. Harden was a star but he lacked leadership intangibles and that drew Howard to him like a fly to tape because Howard was a star who also lacked leadership intangibles.
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Three years have gone by and Howard is famous in NBA circles but he isn’t a super star. His world had crashed in front of him, like an accident he didn’t see coming, a sucker punch straight in the face. Then he went home.
It was that home team that found him at Staples, wearing a Hawks jersey. How is Dwight’s season really going? His minutes are a career low. He is attempting the third fewest shots in his career (9.4 per game) and his 14.4 points are his third lowest. His free throw percentage is a career low (47.5%). His turnover rate is the second highest of his career (3.4.). His defensive rating is the best it has ever been. His PER is at a five year high (22.8). The only centers who have more on-court impact are DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gobert (Real Plus-Minus).
The 2016-17 version of Dwight Howard is familiar. He rebounds well but is no longer dominant in that area. He trails Hassan Whiteside by 2.3 rebounds per game. He gives defensive energy and finishes off dunks but Howard has become comfortable with passivity and disinterest on the offensive end, as if he expects to be a forgotten third wheel. There is no more aggression in his soul. Howard gets 51 touches per game. Paul Millsap gets 63 touches.
Last night, a fan brought all his Kobe angst to the game and called Howard a b____. Howard was a bit salty after losing to players who were 10 years old when he was drafted. He told the fan, “Come back here and say it.” He was held back. It was a good sign. Howard has been accused of being soft, lazy, or both. He showed he had some pride.
Reputations stick. Never known for his mental toughness, Howard has seemingly regressed from his Orlando and L.A.days. In Florida and in California, Howard had an edge to him. When he didn’t get the ball he pouted and sulked and then delivered monster performances. You could see his will on the court. He would get angry at times. He would be happy at times. He could be confused at times. But he wasn’t the ghost we saw at the end of his Rockets tenure.
Howard has his own glass house. A 19 point performance in L.A. when you lose by 15 to a team that has improved but is not playoff caliber would make a proud man want to fight somebody.
photo via llananba