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Regardless of How the Season Ends, the Dwight Howard Gambit Paid off for LA

"Basketball, or entertainment period, isn’t needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction. Sure it might not distract us the players, but we have resources at hand majority of our community don’t have. And the smallest distraction for them, can start a trickle down effect that may never stop. Especially the way the climate is now."

Dwight David Howard has never been shy about voicing his opinions. For 16 years, he has dominated headlines as one of the most charismatic and outright expressive NBA players in the league...for better or worse. In the beginning of his career, most saw him as an innocent young man with a great sense of humor. As most basketball stars find out however, opinions can change in a hurry. As the years progressed and steep expectations began to take hold, his attitude soon wore thin on the hearts and minds of fans and teammates alike.

Take this 2016 quote from ESPN reporter Calvin Watkins for example:

"They have tried to be friends -- Harden picked up Howard's tab for dinner in New York on his birthday. During dinner in Phoenix at the All-Star break, the two discussed their on-court issues.

But ultimately, the chemistry between the two hasn't been there. One team source said: "It's cordially bad."

Not exactly the type of dynamic you want to see from the best two players on your team.

As if the constant negative press from reporters and analysts concerning his off-court relationships wasn't enough (shall we recall what Shaq used to say about him?), he continuously put himself in hot water with his brash behavior and poor choice of words during press conferences and interviews. Towards the end of his tenure in Orlando, he forced his way into an interview with coach Stan Van Gundy that involved talk of Dwight trying to get him fired. Yikes.

So at this juncture, it should be abundantly clear that Dwight has not done himself any favors the past ten years or so when it comes to his public reputation. At each of his five stops, Howard has made a few friends and many more enemies, because he lacks discipline on the court and otherwise.

Going into the 2019-2020 campaign, Howard had his work cut out for him just to make his way onto another NBA roster. It may seem like a lifetime ago, because honestly, what doesn’t seem like a long time ago in the times we’re in. But anyways, just last season, Dwight was a net positive on the court for the Washington Wizards...for a whole nine games. It was a departure of sorts for him, since he had played 71, 74, and 81 games the last three seasons, respectively. During his incredibly short tenure in the nations capital, he put up modest averages of 12.8 points and 9.2 rebounds a night along with the second highest FG% of his career to that point (62.3%). There’s no denying the fact that Dwight did some good things for Washington last year. If we’re being honest, he has been a productive player everywhere he has played. However, that hasn’t been the issue. All the talent in the world can’t save you if you insist on acting like a 12 year old child along with rubbing your employers and teammates the wrong way at every turn.

Luckily, the basketball gods looked out for Howard last off-season in the form of an old flame that came calling to offer up one last chance at redemption. If you had asked anybody with any kind of interest in the NBA last season, the Lakers might have ranked towards the bottom of a list of possible suitors. During his last stay, he continuously butted heads with Mike D’Antoni and the late great Kobe Bryant much to the dismay of Laker Nation. Nobody would deny he was still one of the better centers in the game post back surgery, however.

Clearly, Dwight was still mostly himself once he recovered from back surgery in mid 2012. The team fell well short of expectations, but that’s a story for another day. Although things went south quickly for that unit, the team that was in place during that year has pretty much vanished. Every player that was a teammate of Dwight has departed and GM Mitch Kupchack has since moved on as well, opening the door for fresh perspectives to take hold and Dwight to reappear on the team‘s radar. After much speculation and debate, the Lakers bit the bullet and signed Dwight to a one-year “prove it” contract worth $2.5 million. This deal seems simple enough on the surface, but it’s actually quite unique in its structure. Los Angeles took on minimal risk and cost when they constructed this contract by setting it up as a “Summer Contract.”

Here is the official explanation straight from ESPN cap guru Bobby Marks:

Most players have at least a decent amount of leverage during negotiations, which allows them to obtain a certain level of security in the form of guarantees. In this particular case though, Howard had little to no ability to command any sort of serious commitment due to his sketchy locker room history and advanced age. Still, this level of non-guaranteed money in an agreement is rare to see. Although it is unusual, it did make sense. This was the absolute last chance for Dwight to stick on a team and everyone knew it. The value of this deal was very high, because it factored out to a simple case of “low risk, high reward.”

Fast forward to the present day, and there is no doubt that the Lakers have reaped the ultimate reward by placing their faith in the one once known as ’Superman.’ For the first time in his career, Dwight is playing a bench role. Most of the time anyway (He has started two games this season). He’s playing by far the least minutes per game in his career (19.2) and putting up pedestrian numbers (7.5ppg, 7.4reb). Stopping our analysis there would be doing him a huge disservice though. If we extrapolate those numbers to a per 36 minutes sample, he averages ballon to 14.1ppg, 13.8reb, and 2.3blk, which are much more in line with his career numbers. Also, playing such regulated minutes at age 34 has kept him fresh and played a part in his sky high field goal percentage of 73 percent.

Just a quick glance at how he’s getting buckets these days and that percentage makes perfect sense.

Even after nearly 16 seasons and 37,000 career minutes, Dwight is quite quick on his feet. In the first clip, he completely burns Sabonis with a few steps towards the perimeter to make it look as though he was preparing to set a screen up top, before spinning back towards the hoop for an easy lob courtesy of the dimer maestro, Rondo.

Next, he brings back the spin move during a box out situation with Jarrett Allen. Allen has the advantage in length and athleticism, but Dwight makes up for that with quickness of his own and brute strength. Allen is still in decent position to contest the shot after conceding the offensive rebound, but it’s no good. Dwight powers right through him for the jam. That one really brings back memories of Orlando.

In the final clip, he delivers a nice dose of embarrassment to Torrey Craig, who is a strong defender in his own right, but is simply outmatched when it comes to containing legitimate post threats. All it takes is a strong seal of Craig in the restricted area and a quick call out to that nuclear vertical prowess that won him two dunk contests back in the day. He really does still have the ability to get off the ground in a heartbeat.

His physicality and vertical spacing have been great assets to the Lakers offense every night and a big contribution towards their number 6 rated offense according to CTG (113.2 points per possession). Most opponents are outmatched by the physical abilities of LeBron, Davis, and Howard on the frontline. It also helps that Dwight has long been known as a rim protector and deterrent aiding in the stability of the Laker defense, which currently ranks 3rd at 106.1 points per possession. His on/off numbers don’t paint the prettiest picture of his impact, but those numbers can be very noisy with the presence of other bench players on the court with him. Other defensive measuring sticks, such as Defensive Real Plus-Minus and Defensive Box Plus-Minus view him as an overall positive on that end of the floor. He’s not the one man world wrecker he used to be during his DPOY days, but he can still defend the rim admirably, which is all the team can ask of him at this point.

Whether you try him at the rim head-on:

Or slide behind him for what looks to be an easy layup:

These impressive displays prove he has retained the instincts that made him such a feared interior presence when he was in his prime. Sure, blocks are just a small part of what makes a reliable rim protector, but his knack for chasing down shots even after being a step behind the play probably makes players think twice before going at him down low.

Now that Dwight’s feel good revival story has been established, it’s time to look at the future. This piece was started with a quote from Dwight discussing the Orlando restart. It doesn’t take a genius to realize he’s not thrilled at the prospect of re-starting the season in Orlando. He along with many other players feel that basketball is not a high priority right now and it would distract from more important issues. If he were to decide to sit out, it would not come without cost...literally and figuratively.

First of all, it would hurt his bottom line in a season where he was only making the veteran’s minimum. The league decided a couple weeks back that players’ pay will be docked 1/92.6 for each game missed, up to a maximum for 14 games. Quite an odd percentage, don’t you think? After some basic math takes place, one can calculate an 8% drop in pay if their team only play eight games and misses the playoffs and a 15% loss if their team advances and hits the maximum penalty reduction of 14 games. In Dwight‘s case, this would equate to a loss of between $200,000 and $375,000. Not terrible, but still significant.

Now let’s be clear here. Unless he has horribly mismanaged his money in recent years, Dwight will be fine without a few hundred thousand dollars. His career earnings top $240 million, so this is merely a drop in the bucket from his perspective. It’s just important to note that there will be a monetary loss here.

Since that part of the equation is most likely not a serious factor in his decision to return or not, let’s look at it from a slightly different perspective. It will be a loss for the Lakers organization going into the most significant stretch of basketball for them in around ten years. They haven’t been playoff bound since 2013. Even in a shortened season, their 49 wins is more than they’ve had since 2011. At this point, every game and player holds enormous weight due to the legacy of the Lakers and it’s best player, LeBron James. Losing Dwight even for his 10-15 minute spurts in the post-season would be a real issue.

Most nights in the playoffs, playing small might be the best course of action for the team, but Anthony Davis is almost allergic time the idea of playing center. According to Cleaning the Glass, he has only played that position 38% of the time this season. If he isn’t manning the middle, that only leaves Javale McGee as a legitimate center, and he can’t be relied on to play major minutes. That only leaves LeBron and maybe Kuzma to cover there and the results probably would not be promising.

So were does that leave Dwight at the end of the day? Well, it’s pretty much up to him. As of the time of this writing, he has less than 48 hours to make a final decision about Orlando. Whatever he ends up deciding, he has gone a long way towards helping Lakers fans forget about his rocky stint almost seven years ago. He went from being a part of one of the most disappointing campaigns in the history of the purple and gold to one of the most promising. If he rejoins the team, they might have the most punishing frontline among all of the 22 teams returning to action. If not, it will be an unfortunate turn for such an amazing season from the once prodigal son. Hopefully, we can bring ourselves to respect whatever he decides to do for himself.

He‘s earned that much.

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