Los Angeles Lakers: Dwight Howard’s play defies previous Kobe Bryant comments

(Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard has played well during his second stint with the team, defying some of the previous comments made about him.

When the Los Angeles Lakers signed Dwight Howard this offseason, people immediately began thinking of the disaster his first tenure was.

“Soft.”

A word that is so gentle, so mild.

“Teddy bear.”

A stuffed toy usually described as soft.

No, you haven’t stumbled upon a promo script for fabric softener.

These words, seemingly harmless, had a massive effect on Dwight Howard since leaving the Lakers for the Houston Rockets in the 2013 NBA offseason.

Lakers’ icon Kobe Bryant bellowed these sentiments during and after a regular-season matchup between Houston and Los Angeles in 2014. The Rockets won the game decisively, but a scuffle between Bryant and Howard stole the show, with Howard catching Bryant’s chin with his elbow.

After a rough first stint in Los Angeles, three years in Houston, and a four-year NBA East Coast tour, Howard’s career trended downwards. Those words from Bryant weighing heavy on Howard’s mind.

The last glimpse of Howard wearing a Lakers uniform was in 2013 — ejected in the 3rd quarter during Game 4 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. On the brink of being swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs, fans expected a Lakers’ return to glory. The opposite occurred and a disappointing season ensued. Questions of grit and the ability to uphold a “championship-or-bust” mentality seemed too much for Howard to handle.

The notion that Howard wanted to end the 2013 season early was felt by most, punctuated by his 3rd quarter ejection. As the boo-birds of Staples Center ushered him to the locker room, Lakers’ fans dream season blew up in their faces. It felt like Howard gave up and wanted the nightmare to end.

Howard isn’t the athletic freak the NBA witnessed from 2004 to 2011. He also isn’t the marketable player he once was. Now a shell of his former self, he knew his shelf life in the NBA was beginning to wear thin.

The player once proclaimed as the next “Superman,” reinvented himself for the present and beyond.

Howard is the only NBA player to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award in three straight seasons. He was determined to help the Lakers become that dominant defensive force.

Thanks to his efforts, the Lakers sit atop the Western Conference at 6-1, riding a 6-game winning streak. After the Lakers 118-112 comeback victory over the Chicago Bulls Tuesday night, Howard discussed with Mike Trudell on what he’s done this offseason to be able to play at this level.

(Via Spectrum Sportsnet):

"“[I] did a lot of running. I told myself, whenever I get back on the court, you know, I was going to try to do whatever I can to get in the best shape of my life.” Howard added, “I know defense is where I made my mark in this league,” We got some really good scorers. So, I try to clean everything up for those guys and just make it easy for them, especially on defense.”"

Much of the Lakers’ early success is due to the defense infused by head coach Frank Vogel. A defense anchored by LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, and Howard, the Lakers boast a defensive rating of 97.9 — best in the NBA.

The Lakers seemed to be missing that intensity for the majority of the Lakers’ victory over the Bulls at the United Center, but a spark from Howard and the ‘Bad News Bears’ bench in the 2nd half flipped the game on its head.

Aside from Vogel’s defensive schemes, the Lakers’ length and prowess in the frontcourt, accompanied by Howard, has made the Lakers hard to beat.

These days, Lakers fans understand the difference between “want” versus “need.”

Sure, fans loved Showtime’s “razzmatazz, skiddily-do,” and show-stopping play from the artist formally known as “Fro’Be,” but aside from having two of the top-five players in the NBA on the same team, fans also needed veteran role players who deliver effort and results.

Let’s be real. There wasn’t a ton of people screaming for Howard to just “know his role” when acquired in 2012-13. They expected him to be the Lakers’ savior. A major complement to Bryant as Pau Gasol was in 2007 on their way to three straight NBA Finals.

But even knowing that Howard wasn’t at full strength, a precedent was set for superstar Lakers’ centers and playing through 76 games after major back surgery wasn’t enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. Confined by his diva reputation, questionable effort, and frequent conflict with Bryant, Howard’s fate with the Lakers was already sealed.

Bryant’s piercing but honest opinion from an article in 2015 for USA Today by Sam Amick resonates amongst players who are dedicated to their craft.

"“I tried teaching Dwight. I tried showing him…but when he saw the reality of it, it made him uncomfortable. And I don’t think he was willing to deal with that uncomfortable and combative nature.”"

The Mamba from 2015 would have respected Howard’s metamorphosis, and his redemption season has become one of the most interesting stories of this young NBA season.

Pete Zayas of Laker Film Room highlights Howard’s great defensive start to the season. Zayas breaks down Howard’s defensive capabilities including his rim protection and team defense, especially in pick and roll situations. Within Howard’s defensive mind lies the fundamental play that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet.

As the Lakers completed their comeback victory against the Bulls, I couldn’t help but think about the 1996-1998 Bulls and one of their star role players of that time, Dennis Rodman.

Rodman, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, never had the athletic ability of his NBA counterparts but was an integral part of the Bulls’ dynasty of the late 90s.

Sure, he made off-color remarks, married himself, and eventually became Kim Jong-un’s best friend, but that’s beside the point. On the court, he knew his role and played to his strengths, earning him consecutive DPOY awards and seven straight rebounding titles.

Howard doesn’t have the hops he once had, and although his current athleticism would still crush Rodman’s in his prime, “The Worm” was a rebounding maestro. The intangible qualities Rodman displayed parallels those of Howard’s play this season.

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If Howard channeled even fifty percent of what Rodman was for the Bulls, this incarnation of the Lakers will put those Vegas championship odds to the test. The Lakers are unstoppable when that gargantuan line-up of Howard, James, and Davis set that defensive tone.

The ’96-’98 Bulls were undoubtedly one of the best NBA teams ever, commanded by Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Rodman. The blasphemy surrounding the idea of comparing that core to any group of players in NBA history feels outlandish, but if there’s going to be a trio of players attempting to have similar success in a short window of time, all bets should be placed on James, Davis, and Howard.

When Howard forced his way out of Orlando, fans expected him and the Lakers to be sitting on the throne. Instead, fans literally booed him out of the kingdom.

Not so much these days.

D39’s days of enduring “Howard sucks!” chants are now met with cheers that crescendo throughout the Staples Center whenever his number is called. Always playful at heart, Howard even joined in on an MVP chant for Davis during his 40-point, 20 rebound outburst against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Years after his disdain for Howard sank in, Bryant did acknowledge his former teammate’s unlikely return to the Lakers and the position he’s in to seize the moment.

Via LA Times’ Arash Markazi, Bryant says:

"“I’m happy for him because sometimes we don’t realize how much we love the game and miss the game until that window starts closing or its closed, Bryant said. “Then you’re like, ‘Oh damn, I really miss playing the game. I want another opportunity to show what I can do. Sometimes you don’t know if that opportunity will ever come again.”"

The words “soft” and “teddy bear” may always linger in Howard’s mind, and even went on record admitting he hated Bryant for it, thinking he was challenging his physique and demeanor on the court. He then thanked Bryant for calling him soft, citing that it helped him mature into the player he is today.

Howard knows this is his last chance at rounding out his storied career, one that includes a lone trip to the NBA Finals in 2009 — only to be stifled by Bryant’s Lakers. If the Lakers continue on with this early success, another trip to the NBA Finals and a shot at redemption is a possibility for Howard.

In 2013, Lakers’ fans desired the Orlando Magic’s version of “Superman” but would have appreciated the current version of “D39.”

Evaluating What Went Wrong For Dwight Howard Previously. dark. Next

Howard is not the Lakers’ superhero and no longer a superhero for any NBA team. He’s not even the Robin to James’ Batman. But he is the role player Lakers’ fans deserve and the one they need right now.