Rebuilding the Lakers: Gambling On Dwight


Rebuilding the Lakers is a five part series focused on the Lakers effort to regain championship glory. Part 4 is the Dwight Howard gamble.

The Dwight Howard education was a lesson in what you can’t have. You can’t have chaos and expect sanity. You can’t have a million dollar hero-child in the same orbit as a perfectionist. It doesn’t work, no matter how badly you want a 26 year old to lead you to the promised land.

Mar 29, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) shoots over Washington Wizards center Kevin Seraphin (13) during the second half at Verizon Center. The Houston Rockets won 99 – 91. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In his heroic days, Howard liked to think of himself as a leader but, really, he was a conformist and a delicate human being with an active imagination. He didn’t thrive on doing the tough things, on saying what had to be said despite the consequences. He was unwilling to stand in the fire even if that meant getting burned mostly because his ego was inflated.

Like most NBA players, he thought he was better than he was. The problem with that sort of thinking was that Howard didn’t have the psychic need to prove everyone wrong or shut people up. He was playing a kid’s game and often wanted to adorn himself in the simple things children take for granted.

More from Lake Show Life

He appeared in the NBA Finals a lifetime ago. The loser in 2009, it was a bitter failure for a 23 year old who liked to think of himself as Superman. After losing in the Finals, amid the Kobe Bryant 4 titles coronation, Dwight Howard sat on the bench while the Lakers whooped it up. His shoulders were slumped, parts of his face were hollow. This glimpse of Howard was antithetical to who he wanted us to believe he was. For public consumption his face was bathed in sorrow, disappointment and misery.

For the first time, Howard had no smile. He allowed the photographers to reveal the tragic consequence of a man who failed miserably at what he wanted the most. But, then Howard pulled himself together speaking to reporters. He vowed to get back to the Finals again.

But the next year, the Orlando Magic faced the tough minded and physically driven Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. In a must win game 3, the Magic were down 0-2. Howard came up small in a more devastating way than in the NBA Finals the year before: 7 points, 7 rebounds, outplayed. It was in that performance that Howard reinforced the cruelty of his own story: a high school player who would never ascend higher than what he was at that moment. Not a franchise deliverer. Not Superman and certainly not tough.

Pretty quickly, after his back to back defeats on such a huge stage, the public set the rose colored glasses aside and viewed Dwight Howard through a more realistic prism than the Superman ethic. A gifted player who didn’t have the nerve or guts to stand up to management, Howard continually came up with the short end of things, so perhaps, he was the problem and not everyone else. You couldn’t overlook Howard’s game had deficits, a reminder of a one dimensional star but even that wasn’t an anomaly. What grated was that Howard had a habit of blaming everyone else, he never took responsibility. It was a relevant question to ask: would Dwight Howard ever win anything?

Apr 1, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik (3) is defended by Los Angeles Lakers guard Jeremy Lin (17) and forward Tarik Black (28) at Staples Center. The Pelicans defeated the Pelicans 113-92. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers are not who people think they are. From afar, they appear glamorous and a little flamboyant and attractive and very generous but up close they are a franchise that players either love or hate. It is less about the organization itself then the culture that has wrapped itself around the team cutting off oxygen. There is no off day, no down time, no month in which news or rumors or interest doesn’t create some form of hysteria or cynicism or pride or eccentricity.

It’s the most difficult franchise to play for because of the scrutiny even when you are taking out the garbage. Eyes are never, ever shut. When things are going well, it’s great to be a Laker. When things are going horrible, it is depressingly intimidating and disastrous. Los Angeles, for all of the bitching it takes about shallowness, is an achievement culture through and through. The star thing can only take you so far as Dwight Howard discovered when he was flung into this melting pot of fan passion and expectations and history and romance and transformation.

Dwight Howard was thrown to the wolves in the fall of 2012, unprepared. Howard was coming off a brutal back surgery and as was his history, he tried to please his new employer. Parenthetically, Howard understood how he had ruined his reputation by his incessant and childish mind changing, never sticking with one thing, needing to make people think he was good. His childishness seemed perennial. Everyone grows up but Howard did not seem to evolve.

Because fans no longer trusted him, his comedy shtick felt pathetic and so very contrived, like an out of work actor trying to make a comeback. His smile felt manipulative. But what Howard knew was what we all know: winning changes perception. On opening night, Dwight Howard was starting over.

He was in Los Angeles, a haven of celebrities, great weather, dedicated fans, passion to the exclusion of common sense, and all of it was a hedonistic fantasy for someone who wanted to belong. Add to that his excitement to play with Steve Nash, who the Lakers had acquired in a sign-and-trade in July. It was poetic justice for Howard. He found a place he fit. So he pushed himself and his body to take the court for all the right reasons.

More from Lakers News

Howard was coached by Mike Brown who, if put in a lineup of other coaches, didn’t look like he belonged in the NBA but, rather, in a math class teaching Algebra. Mike Brown had that substitute teacher aesthetic, a bulky glasses wearing man who was overmatched in coaching the tough to rein in Kobe Bryant.

But, Dwight Howard was a dream come true for Brown who had coached dynamic scorers. Howard was his first true big man with explosive speed, shot blocking ability and defensive intelligence. Howard could read pick and rolls, his defensive recovery was mind boggling, he altered shots. Offensively, his footwork was mediocre but he had nice jump hook in the lane.

Feb 25, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) reacts from the bench during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard was an early Mike Brown Christmas present. In 2012-13, Brown made the decision to install the Princeton offense as a way to neutralize the explosion of the new breed of NBA player. The Lakers were old and slow. Kobe Bryant was 34. Pau Gasol was 32. Antawn Jamison was 36. Steve Nash was 38. Metta World Peace was 33.

The Princeton offense which valued ball movement and player movement was the Mike Brown elixir and it was the Mike Brown electric chair. It was a decent theory except the details were a little off. Kobe Bryant played the Triangle offense for much of his career and Steve Nash was exclusively a pick and roll point guard and Pau Gasol needed an offense that featured him in the lane.

When the Lakers started out the year 1-3, when they were demolished on the defensive end by the Portland Trailblazers, when Kobe Bryant’s 40 point outburst went to waste against the Clippers because of 20 turnovers, panic began to set in.

In Utah, the Lakers were lethargic and disinterested and hardly seem to give a damn about Mike Brown’s new offense. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard had 48 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. They took 29 free throws but they also had 11 turnovers. Pau Gasol had 5 points as he missed 7 of the 9 shots he took. It was enough for Mitch Kupchak to overreact and fire Mike Brown.

Live Feed

How LeBron can follow in Kobe's footsteps and bolster his legacy in 2024
How LeBron can follow in Kobe's footsteps and bolster his legacy in 2024 /

Hoops Habit

  • NBA 2K24 Review: Excellent gameplay highlights strong installmentHoops Habit
  • NBA 2K24 Mamba Moments: How to Complete, RewardsDBLTAP
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's FIBA World Cup performance is reminiscent of Kobe Bryant'sZona Zealots
  • This decision by Brandon Ingram makes complete sensePelican Debrief
  • Here's how fans can secure Dodgers' Kobe Bryant crossover Lakers jersey giveawayDodgers Way
  • Suddenly, the curtain was pulled back shedding light on player hierarchy. Bryant could play in any system for anybody, he was first. Steve Nash needed a pick and roll offense, he was second. Dwight Howard was third.

    But, Howard was used to being the star, the only star. In Orlando, the offense was designed brilliantly for him. There was Howard and there were shooters that spread the floor waiting for Howard to get doubled and pitch it out. The Lakers thought very little of this strategy. It was Steve Nash they wanted to appease and despite their reasoning for the discrediting of Phil Jackson, the Lakers brain trust hired the Steve Nash whisperer, Mike D’antoni.

    Mike D’antoni had little use for big men as he ran a fast paced, guard oriented catch and shoot offense. He wasn’t big on half court basketball and for good reason; he had never coached a dominant player like Howard. D’antoni inherited Howard and Gasol and when he became the Lakers coach it all went sideways. It was the shooters he cared about, not what was going on in the paint. Subsequently, the Lakers were no better with D’antoni then they were with Mike Brown. And their defense was particularly awful.

    Jan 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) against the New Orleans Pelicans during a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Lakers 96-80. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    In 2012-13 Kobe Bryant was having an incredible year, one of the best in his career (27 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 46% field goals). He was 34 years old playing like a 24 year old except his rage was ramping up after each and every loss. He bitched at Dwight Howard for not playing through a shoulder injury. He railed at the Lakers lack of toughness. He was already at odds with Mike D’antoni who had a losing record by the middle of January.

    The Lakers were 12-20 under D’antoni and Bryant was seething, particularly after a loss in Memphis where a team meeting aired out all of the ugliness. In the meeting Dwight Howard, who at this point, was drained by Kobe Bryant’s sadistic approach to basketball, did what he always did when confrontation stared him straight in the face. He sat quietly, he said nothing. He blinked.

    The Bryant-Howard relationship had always been rocky but by mid-January the relationship was glacial, worse in some ways than Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. With O’Neal, Bryant knew he could trust him to make plays on the court, to dominate offensively when it counted. With Howard, he couldn’t promise that. In Howard’s world, nice mattered, while in O’Neal’s world, kicking someone’s ass mattered.

    Howard’s constant complaining could fill up a book: he was irritated at the number of shots he got, he was irritated at Bryant’s preferential treatment, he was irritated at the fans loving him one day, hating him the next and the critics who didn’t take into account his bad back.

    Based on personality, there were irreconcilable differences. Howard was eager to please, needed approval, was fragile, was addicted to having fun, and hated to make waves. Bryant was the opposite, a driven, hard core, psychotic winner who had 5 titles.

    Bryant was a brilliant basketball tactician with a high i.q. but didn’t put much stock into getting along with his teammates. Confrontational relationships were his drug. So when Howard didn’t challenge him in the meeting in Memphis, Bryant translated that to mean he fears me. Bryant didn’t respect fear, he mocked it. After Memphis, he took over the offense and dared Howard to argue

    In New Orleans, the Lakers were trailing by 18 points to start the 4th quarter. A win would bring them to .500 for the first time in two months. At times like these, nearing the edge of a cliff, Bryant was at his brilliant best, tasting victory while still immersed in ruin.

    Bryant had 18 points in the quarter. He had 7 assists. Every basket made except for a Jodie Meeks shot was the product of a Bryant make or a Bryant assist. Howard in the 4th quarter had 3 points; he took 3 shots. The Lakers won the game by outscoring the Hornets (Pelicans) in the 4th quarter by 24 points. Bryant was the hero and Howard wasn’t even his sidekick.

    Two nights later, against the Toronto Raptors, Bryant hit a three point shot late in the 4th quarter to cut the Raptors lead to one. Then, he hit a miraculous step back, one legged three point shot to send the game into overtime where he finished off the Raptors with a dunk. He had 41 points. Dwight Howard had 24 points. Steve Nash had 22 points. Bryant’s heroics and passionate zeal drove the Lakers to the playoffs as they were 28-12 after that Memphis meeting when Bryant took over the offense.

    Jan 23, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    The playoffs loomed for the Lakers even after Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles and the entire city was in mourning. By default, Dwight Howard was the leader. It was his team to inspire or to deflate. All season long, it bothered Howard how he was blamed for everything and Bryant was blamed for nothing, how Bryant decided how many minutes Bryant would play while Howard was granted little freedom. Now, in a stroke of irony, Howard would take Kobe Bryant’s place in the short term, and in the long term, he would slay the snake. He would shut the door on Bryant’s legacy as the leader of the franchise. Howard’s revenge was in his grasp. He’d kick the king from the kingdom.

    In game one against the Spurs, Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds but the Lakers bench could only manage 10 points. In game two, the Lakers missed Bryant badly. Howard’s 16 points led the team but it wasn’t nearly enough. Howard’s performance was fine for a regular season game but on a playoff level it was a disappointment and a cautionary tale. Howard would never be able to lead a franchise on his own.

    The Lakers were blown out in game three and in game 4 Howard’s signature Los Angeles Lakers moment happened in the second half.

    He received his second technical foul early in the third quarter. He was forced to leave the court but first he was frozen in place, he was that hero-child. He did not seem to understand the enormity of the situation he created with his lack of discipline. It was not that the ejection changed the course of the game but it did change the course of Lakers history and the narrative of Dwight Howard, now a failure twice, in two cities.

    As reality set in, he was observed moving away from everything, from the fans who were tough to please if they didn’t see a Kobe Bryant clone, from the ownership that never tried to forge a relationship with him, from the General Manager who cared more about Steve Nash, from the media critics who tore apart his game and never took into account he was not 100% healthy. Howard kept walking, he kept his head up, he kept walking, he didn’t look at anyone.

    It was a moment crystallized in time, one of those memorable things. Howard sauntered away from something once again, out the arena, then in the hallway, in the locker room, the showers. The poet Tennyson once wrote: Gone, and a cloud in my heart. But, Howard felt nothing of the sort, he was lighter and satisfied. His Los Angeles story had finally come to an end and because he was Dwight Howard he could not tell the truth about it.

    Post-game he said, “I want to make it up to the fans” as if atonement was in his future. He had one last Laker opportunity as they tried to woo him back, to basically give him the franchise. But the franchise came with Bryant attached and Howard was never going to lay upon the Kobe Bryant altar again. And so it was, the repetition of Howard’s history.

    He had always wanted the impossible. Fame without suffering. Heroism without scars. Achievement without patience. Dwight Howard wanted to be a big fish in a big pond, it was why he stormed his way out of small town Orlando. But at the high altitude where the Lakers reside, Dwight Howard was suddenly very, very small, a product of his own hype and failure.

    Rebuilding the Lakers, Part 5: Who Trusts Jim Buss?

    Next: Kobe Ruins The Lakers Summer