The Los Angeles Lakers have a lot of decisions to make this summer. Should they give Mike D'Antoni a real and fair chance to see what he can do with a "superteam" that ended up failing at achieving either "super" or "team"? Should they trade Pau Gasol in an attempt to bring in players better suited for D'Antoni's preferred strategy? Should they amnesty Metta World Peace? Where should they focus their efforts to bring in new players, on a roster filled with holes and more aged than a fine wine? At small forward? At shooting guard? With the franchise's figurehead most likely out for a significant portion of the season, is next year even one worth building towards? Or should it be a *gulp* rebuilding year in which young assets and draft picks are stockpiled and the end of season positioning involves the draft lottery instead of playoff seeding? Lots and lots of questions, and they all have a single answer: Ask again in three months.
Because the single biggest question as pertains to the Los Angeles Lakers next season is also the question that they don't have to bother thinking about: Will Dwight Howard re-sign with the Lakers, or will he walk? It may be a question the Lakers have a vested interest in, but it is not one they need to ponder for very long. Their role in the process is a simple one. Offer Dwight Howard a max contract, with more money and longer terms than anybody else can provide, and wait for his answer. If Dwight Howard says yes, it will be the best possible outcome for the Los Angeles Lakers. And if he says no, it will be the best possible outcome for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Make no mistake, I want Dwight Howard back in a Lakers uniform next year. Although he struggled throughout the year, he showed enough by year's end to prove that he's still one of the league's elite players. He's as worthy of a max contract as anybody not named LeBron or Durant. But, I only want Dwight back in a Lakers uniform next year if Dwight wants Dwight back in a Lakers uniform next year. Dwight Howard played well enough to have little doubt about how much money he should be paid. He also played poorly enough for us to be ambivalent about whether or not we want him to play for our team.
We've seen a lot from Howard over the course of 12 months, both good and bad. We've seen him lead the league in rebounding, but we've also seen him get out-worked and out-hustled on the boards far too often to be all that impressed. The Lakers ranked 10th in defensive rebounding this season, which is lower than Dwight Howard's team has ranked since 2006. We've seen Dwight Howard change entire quarters with his defense, single handedly blowing up pick and rolls with athleticism and skill. We've also seen him be slow to rotate and ready to point an accusing finger at everyone else on the roster. We've seen Dwight post a team leading 58% shooting from the field, but we've also seen him turn the ball over far too often and pick up offensive fouls at the most inopportune times. Most importantly, we've seen the stunts, the ejections, and the body language to know that Dwight Howard doesn't handle unhappiness very well.
It is in the best interests of the Los Angeles Lakers for Dwight Howard to be happy. If that means that he re-signs for the Lakers, enjoys his biggest possible pay-day, and lets the franchise do what the franchise is known to do (re-load in a hurry for the next cycle of greatness), awesome. If Dwight can't be happy in LA, because of Kobe, or because of D'Antoni, or because of Pau Gasol, then the best thing that can happen will be for him to take his talents elsewhere and let the Lakers press fast forward in moving on to the next era. A happy, motivated, healthy Dwight Howard is one of the elite players in this league, but Howard spent much of this failed season lacking all three qualities.
As is the case for nearly everything that touched the Lakers over the past six months, it is impossible to know exactly what to make of Dwight. Every single one of his failings this season could simply be a result of a lengthy recovery from a complex medical procedure, a recovery that Dwight honorably decided to undertake while playing 36 minutes a night. Dwight's rotations may have been slow because he couldn't move the way he is used to moving. His rebounding could have suffered because he could not jump as high, or as often, as he wanted to. His offensive fouls could be the result of not having enough strength to get where he wanted to get by less obvious means. As the season went on, Dwight Howard got better. And better. And better, until at the very end he looked something very close to what we were expecting him to be all season long. So why isn't this possibility, that health, and only health, is the best explanation for Dwight wasn't quite DWIGHT, accepted as fact?
Because he got ejected in the last game of the season, when his team needed him most. Because he walked around the locker room with a stat sheet to show that he wasn't getting enough shot attempts (on a night, I might add, where his turnovers prevented him from even being the smart option). Because I lost count of how many times during the season Dwight Howard picked up a touch foul on the perimeter when he was already in foul trouble. Dwight's play this season was inconsistent, and that, too, could just be a result of his injuries. But as the old saying goes, where there's smoke, there's fire, and there was way too much smoke about Howard's inconsistency for some of it not to be mental. If there are Lakers fans, such as myself, who are ambivalent about the return of Dwight Howard, it is because we spent the entire year wondering if Dwight Howard was ambivalent towards us, and towards his teammates.
There is no way you could watch Dwight Howard this season and think to yourself that he was physically capable of being the DPOY, MVP caliber player he has been in the past. For most of the season, 75% was the best he could do. There is also no way you could watch Dwight Howard this season and think to yourself that he gave the Lakers everything he had all the time. If Dwight's maximum capability was 75%, then 75% is what he should have given. Instead, his inconsistency was just another hole in a dam doomed for failure.
I want Dwight to come back. I want him to be the cornerstone for the next Lakers era. I want to see Dwight flying all over the court in purple and gold, striking fear in the hearts of point guards everywhere wondering just how in hell you defeat a defense championed by that monster. I want him to win more DPOY awards, and I want him to do it on the team that I root for. But I've seen enough problems with Dwight to know that I only want him to be here if he wants to be here. For that reason, the Lakers should not woo him. They should not cater to his demands on personnel, or coaching, or anything, even if his demands fall in line with what they plan on doing anyway. They should simply offer him his contract, the contract that only they can give him, tell him they are committed to winning multiple championships with him as a centerpiece, and then let him do whatever he wants to do.
If he comes back to LA for the right reasons, then I have no doubt that the Dwight Howard era will be a successful one. Anything else, and the Lakers would be better off pushing the reset button now.