Every season since his last NBA All-Star stop has come with the promise that a humbled Dwight Howard is intent on resurrecting his career, trading the annual demands for more post touches in favor of the greater basketball good. And every season has ended with another team giving up on him.
So, why should his latest tour of duty with the Los Angeles Lakers be any different from Howard’s one-and-down campaigns with the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards? For starters, none of those teams featured LeBron James or Anthony Davis. Their presence should both define his role more clearly than any other in his post-prime career and give him every opportunity to thrive in it.
The hope is that the series of transactions that led Howard to be discarded from the Hawks, Hornets, Brooklyn Nets, Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies in a span of 26 months before landing back in L.A. has actually humbled him this time around — that he will not stray from the few things he still can do well.
So far, so good. As the Lakers have won five straight games after their open-night loss to the Clippers, the 33-year-old Howard has protected the rim (opponents are shooting 13.6 percent below their averages from less than six feet against him), wiped the glass (11th in rebound percentage among NBA regulars) and cleaned up everyone’s mess on offense, serving as a release valve when defenses collapse on James and Davis and a market correction when the rest of his teammates fail to make shots (15 of his 24 field-goal attempts through six games have come off either put-backs or driving dump-offs from LeBron or AD).
Howard’s effort in Sunday’s victory against the San Antonio Spurs — 14 points on 7-for-7 shooting, 13 rebounds, two assists and a pair of blocks in 21 minutes — was precisely the sort of simplified style that coaches have been trying to drill into him ever since he left the Orlando Magic almost a decade ago. He averaged fewer than two seconds and one dribble per touch, according to Second Spectrum data.
“We got great looks, and any time we missed, Superman was there to clean up the offensive glass,” James said in his postgame interview on the Lakers broadcast, before also praising Howard’s defense. “Tip dunks, lobs, everything — he was great tonight.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel has done a phenomenal job putting Howard in position to succeed. According to Cleaning the Glass, Howard has shared the floor with LeBron for 70 percent of his minutes, and he has played only 11 possessions with neither LeBron nor Davis on the floor. (Those possessions have not gone so well, as opponents have outscored the Lakers 19-8.) Lineups with all three of them have enjoyed an astounding level of success, outscoring opponents by 28 points over 30 minutes.
Vogel has also made sure to predominantly play Howard opposite non-spacing bigs. The bulk of his minutes have come against the likes of Montrezl Harrell, Cody Zeller, Maxi Kleber, Boban Marjanovic and Jakob Poeltl. That limits his time defending in space and maximizes his ability to help in the paint.
Credit Howard, too. More of his shot attempts have come as the roll man than in post-ups, and he is doing neither more often than not, instead freeing up teammates and crashing the glass. His usage rate is by far the lowest of his career. His only three shots outside of four feet have all come with fewer than 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Howard holds the ball for two seconds or less on almost 90 percent of his touches, easily his lowest time of possession since the NBA began tracking that data. A third of his opportunities have come from put-backs, more than anyone else but Mitchell Robinson. As a result, Howard is shooting 79 percent through six games, including three perfect nights from the field (all wins).
Beware deeming the addition of Howard a resounding success just yet, though. We were saying all the same things about him at this same point three years ago, when he helped Atlanta to an 8-2 start. He was also praised for his effort in Washington last year, when he posted a few double-doubles in a nine-game stint between back injuries — the last of which ended his season in November and resulted in the second major back surgery of his career. History tells us there is more reason to believe that old habits and injuries will rear their head again than there is to think both were resolved in the same offseason.
The Lakers have been 34.1 points per 100 possessions better with Howard on the floor — more than three times his career high in 2009-10 and double the on/off rating for both James and Davis this year. Howard is also recording blocks at a career-high rate, and his offensive rebounding percentage is greater than in any season since he was a perennial MVP candidate. None of this is likely sustainable.
Much of his impact on the team’s efficiency numbers can be attributed to a pair of wins over the lottery-bound Grizzlies and Hornets, against whom he was a combined plus-45, and for all his statistical success, the Lakers played the Spurs and Clippers even in Howard’s 40 minutes. They have faced few teams with the roster versatility to exploit Howard’s weaknesses at age 33 in the pace-and-space era.
Maybe all that is good enough. If Howard feasts on the dregs of the league and helps the Lakers bench maintain while either LeBron or Davis get a breather, that is well worth the non-guaranteed minimum contract the Lakers are paying him. That now at least seems feasible, right? Whether he can stay healthy and humble enough to keep this up — and whether the Lakers are deep enough even if he does — are still questions that remain six games into the season. But Howard has answered the call so far, and that is already more than I was willing to concede after his last three supposed career resurgences.
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