Comeback Player of the Year: Dwight Howard

When Dwight Howard signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Los Angeles Lakers there were a lot of negative emotions being spewed left and right. And rightly so. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The last we saw of Dwight Howard in Los Angeles he was getting ejected from an elimination game, then promising to make it up to Lakers fans. Then he got the hell out of town. Nothing in Howard’s next six years was evidence that he had matured, changed, reflected on what went wrong, and/or was worth any money.

The six years Howard was gone from L.A., he evolved in reverse. He became a descending player with unrealistic expectations about his career. He only got pub when TMZ broke some ratchet piece of gossip or when a podcast was gleeful about how far Dwight had fallen.  Dwight had become the punchline of a non-humorous joke, or a cautionary tale about what happens when you neglect your career.

Until this season, Howard hadn’t played a meaningful game since the playoffs of 2017 when he was a member of the Atlanta Hawks. It ended in a very Howard-esque way with Dwight complaining about 4th quarter minutes and touches. Ironically, it was the decision to give Dwight a bloated Atlanta contract that got Mike Budenholzer stripped of his ATL GM duties and then he lost his job. Dwight had a way of doing that in his former basketball life. Making everyone around him worse.

With his past history staring everyone in the face, all the grimaces and public vexing was warranted up to a point. It was hard for those who remembered what happened six years ago to accept that people mature and grow, and that with incentives, you can turn the page if the lure is big enough. Dwight was being offered a chance to redeem himself, a rarity in professional sports. But then Dwight wasn’t just anybody. He won Defensive Player of the Year three years in a row. He was an All-Star many times over and was a leading vote getter at the arc of his popularity. He even led a team to an NBA Finals appearance. Dwight has a skill that the Lakers, coached by a defensive specialist, needed. He could block shots, rebound, and control the paint. When he wasn’t whining about touches, he was a presence in the middle. But could he stop whining?

It was an experiment but one that cost the Lakers nothing. If Dwight acted like his old self, he would be waived. If he didn’t, he could be in the mix as a three headed rim protector monster. Dwight could defend when he is motivated. Was he motivated?

Los Angeles is a schizophrenic place. The fans are vicious bullies when they think you are not living up to your potential. But when  you are exceeding expectations, they are devoted. The Dwight resurrection has taken over the town. So little was expected yet he’s delivering more than what anyone could hope for.

21 minutes, a career low. But 79% field goals, a career high. 8.2 rebounds. 2.3 blocks. Dwight hasn’t been north of 2 blocks a game since he was in Orlando when he was 26 years old.

His offensive rating is 135, and his defensive rating is 88. He is on pace to shatter his previous defensive rating best of 94. Then, he was 26 year old Orlando Magic superstar. Dwight has the lowest usage rate of his career but is delivering the best efficiency, outside of his free throws. And he’s not whining about what he is not getting.

Because. Less is more. What Dwight is doing is dynamic and eye catching. The Lakers have the best defensive efficiency and are number one in pick and roll defense. You don’t have to score to be talked about in the NBA. You just need to make an impact.

So far, Dwight has turned around his career and if awards were given out after six games, Comeback Player of the Year would be his.  His block shots last year with the Wizards were unremarkable, a boring 0.4 per game. This year, his 2.3 blocks is pushing the Lakers defense into a category no one ever expected when Howard signed his non-guaranteed deal.