The two Dwight Howard eras in Los Angeles launched as polar opposites.
Seven years ago, the three-time defensive player of the year was at the height of his powers when a blockbuster four-team trade landed him on the Lakers. His arrival earned the ticker-tape treatment: a national magazine cover; endless Photoshops alongside Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the franchise’s other great big men; and even talk of Kobe Bryant eventually passing him the superstar baton. Howard, at 26, was goofy, moody and unpredictable, but still a plausible savior. The Lakers, yet to fall on hard times, assumed he would thrive like so many others had before.
Howard’s second Lakers stint officially started Friday, when he agreed to sign a one-year, non-guaranteed contract for the veteran’s minimum after reaching a buyout agreement with the Memphis Grizzlies. ESPN.com reported that Howard sacrificed $2.6 million in the buyout, meaning that the maneuver could wind up costing him money if he doesn’t stick in L.A. for the entire season. The Lakers almost seemed ashamed of the move, news-dumping it on a summer Friday after days of public messaging indicating that Howard, now 33, would be held to a high standard. Whereas the Lakers once pitched Howard on a long-term reign, they now offered only the equivalent of a month-to-month lease.
With these starkly different circumstances laid out in full, it’s easy to spot the primary driver for this reunion: Howard and the Lakers share an all-encompassing, logic-defying desperation.
Their first go-round was a toxic relationship that ended with a bitter breakup: Howard never meshed with Bryant, tried to play through pain, got ejected from Game 4 of a first-round sweep, bailed for the Houston Rockets after one disappointing season, and then was subjected to humiliating trash talk from Bryant and years of vitriol from L.A.’s fan base.
Remember this, Dwight? (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Howard’s willingness to walk back into such a storm reflects his diminished earning power and lack of alternatives. During a nomadic journey that took him from the Rockets to the Atlanta Hawks to the Charlotte Hornets to the Washington Wizards, Howard’s usefulness and athleticism eroded. His offensive game was made mostly obsolete by the small-ball revolution, he could no longer carry an elite defense as his physical tools slipped, and he was unable to adapt mentally to a complementary role. Reports of poor relationships with his teammates and salacious off-court rumors have only made matters more complicated.