Recent Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard has not yet landed on an NBA team, with league training camps set to open in just three weeks.
After L.A. signed young free agent centers Thomas Bryant and Damian Jones this summer, it appeared that the writing was on the wall forward Howard: Rob Pelinka and his front office were ready to move on. Los Angeles does currently have at least two available spots on its standard 15-man roster, but the team needs shooters more than it does a post-oriented old big man, especially one who may be the third pure center on its depth chart.
The 6’10” big man thoroughly outplayed fellow former All-Star big man DeAndre Jordan while both were on the ill-fated 33-49 Lakers last season. By the middle of the season, Jordan had been relegated to L.A.’s deep bench by late December 2021, then waived
Howard appeared in 60 games for L.A. last year, averaging 6.2 points on 61.2% field goal shooting, 5.9 boards, 0.6 steals and 0.6 blocks across just 16.2 minutes a night during his 18th NBA season. Obviously these numbers are a far cry from his peak stats. Howard has led the league five times in rebounding and twice in blocks. His per-36 minutes numbers (13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks) were relatively solid, almost in line with his career averages of 15.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game.
L.A.’s history with the big man is interesting. Howard has served three non-consecutive seasons in Los Angeles, with three drastically different outcomes for the team and himself. The Lakers first traded for him in 2012 under different front office and coaching regimes, while Howard was still a mainstay on the NBA’s All-Star and All-Defensive teams. Expectations were through the roof for a team that would see Howard and Steve Nash join fellow future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, plus former Defensive Player of the Year Metta Sandiford-Artest (then Metta World Peace). Coached by Mike D’Antoni, the whiz behind Nash’s trendsetting “Seven Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns, L.A. expected to return Bryant and Gasol back to the NBA Finals following a two-year drought. Instead, injuries and infighting more or less poisoned the well. The team limped into the Western Conference playoffs with a mediocre 45-37 record and the seventh seed. L.A. would be swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.
Nevertheless, a billboard campaign was launched by the Lakers imploring free agent Howard to re-sign with the team in the summer of 2013. He demurred, instead joining James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
Six years later, Howard returned to Los Angeles humbled, having been passed around the league like a hot potato. He was older, and years of back problems had reduced him to a still-effective shell of his prime Orlando Magic-era self. He could produce in spurts, but could no longer be expected to last long enough in a starting role. Personality clashes at every stop also made him a bit of a dicey free agent prospect, and L.A. wound up signing him on a non-guaranteed “prove it” deal in the summer of 2019. But prove it he did, joining forces with starter JaVale McGee to provide a hyper-athletic rim-rolling tandem who could match up well against the best bigs in the West.
The team was no longer built around Howard at this point his career, with All-NBA studs LeBron James and Anthony Davis surrounded by a variety of versatile defenders and shooters. Los Angeles would roll to a 52-19 record during its pandemic-shortened 71-game season (their win percentage was the equivalent of an elite 60-win season). In 18.9 minutes a game, he averaged 7.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks a night during that regular season. The team claimed the 2020 championship on the Orlando “bubble” campus, besting Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat in six games. Howard had shown that he had some juice left.
In an awkward 2020 free agency period, Howard preemptively expressed his excitement about returning to L.A. before a deal had been officially complete, and wound up backing up Joel Embiid for the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2020-21 season while the Lakers trotted out a less-successful center tandem of Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell to start their season.
By the time Howard returned to L.A. for his third stint last year, the team had ditched most of its championship-era depth for point guard Russell Westbrook, thinking it could build a 2010s Miami Heat-esque super-team around Westbrook, James and Davis. Clearly no one in L.A.’s front office had been watching much Westbrook in recent seasons. The fit proved disastrous. As we mentioned, Howard did fine in limited minutes, but it didn’t exactly impact winning.
Still, DeAndre Jordan was able to find a new team this summer, signing on with the Denver Nuggets to be two-time MVP Nikola Jokic’s backup in a hilariously bad move. He’ll be waived before the year is through. Howard is a few years older than the 34-year-old Jordan, sure, but he’s also better. There’s a reason Jordan, not Howard, was waived to accommodate an ancient version of D.J. Augustin. Howard remains way more mobile, and still impactful in small doses. Here’s where they really defer, though: Jordan remains one of the most beloved teammates in the league, while Howard is one of the most loathed. And when push comes to shove for end-of-roster positions, sometimes that makes a difference.
So is Howard’s NBA career most likely over?
Not necessarily. Take the case of ex-All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who was not on an NBA roster when regular season play commenced last season. He signed a non-guaranteed deal with the then-defending champion Milwaukee Bucks about a month into the season and performed well in 17 games, but not well enough to get his contract guaranteed. Then, he latched on with the Nuggets on a 10-day hardship exception deal due to COVID-19 and injury absences, followed by two regular 10-day contracts, before finally being inked to a rest-of-season agreement. Howard showed enough last season to merit consideration down the road this year, though he will probably be on a Cousins-esque journey full of non-guaranteed contracts and 10-day deals.
There’s also another path open to the eight-time All-Star, who was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in his prime. Howard has enough name recognition to command a top salary should he opt to venture overseas this season, rather than waiting for injuries to befall NBA bigs. The future Hall of Famer still has some game left. Time will tell where the world gets to see it.
This article first appeared on FanNation All Lakers
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