New Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard's one season with the Los Angeles Lakers did not go very well. Faced with massive expectations, the 2012-13 Lakers never appeared to find an identity, with Howard struggling through injuries, complaining about what he perceived to be Mike D'Antoni's offensive system, and generally looking uncomfortable with the pressure of playing for a demanding fan base. While the Lakers can't have been happy to lose an All-Star in free agency, the pain was likely alleviated by the fact that they wouldn't have to deal with the complications of an uneasy partnership.
Nevertheless, it's important to remember that their trade for Howard in August 2012 was initially seen as a coup, the sort of move that would instantly return the Lakers to title contention and create a smooth transition into the period after Kobe Bryant's retirement. It was an event in keeping with one perspective on Lakers history, in which their image and success creates a positive feedback loop and things tend to go their way as a rule.
So it would be wrong to act as if Howard never fit with the franchise's values or image. Yet that's exactly what Lakers owner and executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss says in a new, wide-ranging piece by Ric Bucher for The Hollywood Reporter:
Jim insists he's just following his father's blueprint, but the Howard situation suggests he missed a page. Instead of Jim spending time with Howard, the team launched a widely derided media campaign that implored "Stay" on billboards. After Howard bolted, Jim turned on his former star, saying he wasn't surprised or dismayed. "He was never really a Laker," says Jim. "He was just passing through."
Those close to Howard say the Lakers could have persuaded him to stay. Even [Jim's sister and co-owner] Jeanie believes that if her father had not been sick, he would have sealed the deal like so many before it. "It's disappointing that Dwight isn't here," she says. "I feel like we failed him."
As Bucher suggests and Jeanie Buss says, it would be wrong to act as if the Lakers didn't want Howard around. From the moment they acquired him, the team's executives and players spoke about Howard as if he would be around for many seasons, building a personal legacy and adding to the rich history of the NBA's most consistently successful organization. It's true that Howard didn't achieve those goals, but the Lakers certainly imagined Howard in their colors right up until the moment he decided to head to the Rockets. It appears as if Jim Buss is using the unhappy conclusion to Howard's season with the franchise to rewrite the terms of their relationship.
His comments would not be much of a story if they didn't connect to an increasingly common tendency of Lakers partisans. During Howard's free agent recruitment period, it was often said that he would choose the Lakers if he wanted to team up with a franchise of proven winners. Yet that argument never seemed entirely connected to realities in which the Rockets had a young core of improving players (as well as a clear organizational philosophy) and the Lakers spent an entire season with an uncertain sense of their on-court structure. It was as if the Lakers believed their rich history conferred upon them magical powers, not admitting that their success (while certainly aided by luck) arose from pursuing new opportunities and never resting on the strength of their image.
Claiming that Howard was "never really a Laker" seems to buy into that mystique without taking on-the-ground realities seriously. It's somewhat reminiscent of New York Yankees' fans insistence in the mid-2000s that the team's failure to win a World Series after a period of dominance was a sign that general manager Brian Cashman wasn't acquiring "True Yankees," players like Paul O'Neill who apparently understood the mythic forces that animated the franchise's success. Things got so ridiculous that one-time SI.com columnist Jay Mohr presented non-Yankees and future journeymen Chris Capuano and David DeJesus as lurking True Yankees who could hand the team titles, if only they were given the chance. Of course, it was far more accurate to say that big-name signings like Jason Giambi struggled with age, like many players, or that Major League Baseball's short-series playoff format caused some very good teams to get eliminated early.
The Lakers are not yet at this point of delusion, but it'd be best to get off the path as soon as possible. Howard played for the Lakers and was once considered to be a franchise cornerstone. These facts constitute proof that he was "really a Laker." Saying otherwise presents a belief that a franchise can be immune from disappointment and the travails of building a winner in the modern NBA. Some teams have advantages, but they all play by the same basic rules.