Two recent wins, including a gigantic statement victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, have temporarily sated Lakers Nation from near riot. Just a few days ago, fans and critics alike were ruling the Lakers DOA, shoveling six feet worth of dirt onto the STAPLES Center floor. With the present rendered seemingly obsolete, many looked to the future of the Lake Show. Chief amongst the concerns is whether or not Dwight Howard would stick around a lottery team, but more importantly, was he worth paying the money that would designate the center as a "franchise player"?
Seven months ago, this question seemed unfathomable; however, after two emphatic victories, such concerns have not been abated. Howard is far from the player that everyone expected him to be in 2012-2013, and while he's been slowly progressing from back surgery, he's been recently relegated to a spectator in the fourth quarter. Off the court, Dwight has also underwhelmed, not showing the character or strong leadership Los Angeles has been privy to for the past forty years, starting with West and Baylor, and moving onto Magic, Shaquille and Kobe.
Seeing as this is the hot topic of the week, we took this to the SS&R crew for discussion. After watching Howard for a little more than half a season, do you still regard him as a franchise player? Or merely a very good player that's a piece of a championship puzzle? Does your answer impact whether or not he could be traded before the deadline?
These are impossible questions to answer truthfully, for a great many reasons. If there are two things I'm sure of regarding Dwight Howard's play as a Los Angeles Laker, they are 1) that he is clearly limited physically due to his recovering from back surgery, and 2) the physical limitations only explain some of the difference between the player we've seen and the dominant big man who we were expecting. Without being able to divorce what problems Dwight has because of his back from what problems he has with mentality, to say nothing of separating temporary physical issues (agility that he may still recover) from permanent ones (he may never get back to being the full athletic monster he once was), determining his future franchise status is impossible.
Has Dwight been a franchise player this season? Hardly. His numbers aren't terrible, but they are well below his career averages, and he has far less impact on the game than his numbers would suggest. Making matters worse, Dwight still expects to be treated like a franchise guy even while he's not providing anywhere near franchise production. Somewhat lost in the conversation regarding whether or not Howard should get more touches is that the touches he is getting are being horribly used. Dwight's post game has never been what you might call refined, but in years past, he has been effective in his ability to face his man and blow by in one direction or another, getting close enough to the basket to either dunk the ball or throw up a 2-3 foot hook that has a decent chance of going in. Without that same explosiveness, Dwight is having to rely purely on his skill in the post, which is...not very good. I honestly can't even remember the last time Dwight successfully navigated a post move into a made hook shot. When you add in his turnover problem (which he's always had, but which is usually mitigated by his otherwise effective game), there is quite simply very little chance of a positive outcome. Honestly, dumping the ball into Howard to go one on one with his man is one of the worst offensive options the Lakers have at the moment.
All that said, I don't think there's any chance Howard gets traded unless he privately makes it very clear that the Lakers will definitely lose his services next season. There may be a lot more risk involved with signing Howard to a max contract next season, but it's a risk worth taking because if he does re-capture a significant portion of his physical prowess, he can still be a game changing player. Even in his currently limited state, there are times when you can see awesome flashes of what he is capable of. And there's nobody who might be on the other end of a trade that even offers the sliver of hope that Dwight's recovery offers. Bottom line: the best thing the Lakers can do with Dwight Howard is re-sign him and hope for the best. The second best thing they can do is let him walk and save that cap space towards their next free agent haul.
Saurav A. Das
Personally, I think this question is a tricky one, simply due to the blurred line of what defines a "franchise player". We as Laker fans are used to Kobe being the undisputed alpha dog on our squad, but players of Kobe's caliber are rare; the only other undisputed alphas on championship-contending teams in recent memory are LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki. Every other squad has featured a partnership, or a conglomerate in the case of the Celtics. Do I think Dwight could be a LeBron/Kobe level franchise star? Not in the modern NBA.
It's often been said that the age of the true center is dying; however, to simply restate this would be to ignore the fact that Dwight is not a back-to-the-basket player in the Olajuwon/Shaq/etc. mold--his persistent turnover issues in the low block exemplify this issue. So, what is Dwight Howard when fully healthy? A defensive phenom, one of the best finishers in the league, and primarily an athletic freak of nature. Really, the best comparison I can come up with for him is LeBron James if he were a few inches taller and offensively limited. Can a player like this be the numero uno guy on a championship squad? Probably not. I view Dwight as the potential bigger half of a truly phenomenal guard-center one-two punch. If Dwight were to be paired with a Chris Paul, a Derrick Rose, or a Russell Westbrook, it'd be game over provided they were surrounded by effective role players. Dwight Howard as the primary offensive option, however, is never going to work.
Of course, my opinion here is irrelevant: the problem is what Dwight thinks. It's been rumored in the past that he wants to be the man on his own squad, he wants more touches, et cetera; the problem is that his play has done nothing to prove his ability to be so. He gets stripped easily, is a poor free-throw shooter, is not as good a passer as, say Shaq, and doesn't appear to have that killer instinct that all Finals MVPs have. If he keeps insisting on being the man, demanding more low-block touches, and arguably losing focus in other aspects of his game when his wishes are not granted, the entirety of his career will be plagued by him not living up to his potential: that of the best second-option in league history.
As for whether or not this affects Dwight's trade prospects, I don't think it plays into considerations at all. I would hope that Lakers management realizes that Dwight will need to be paired with an all-NBA point guard to access his full potential. Of course, the Lakers do possess one Steve Nash, but the team at present is overcomplicated, with too many pieces. Furthermore, Dwight and Steve are at very different stages in their careers, without having had much time to gel. Inherently, I believe Dwight needs a younger squad, one that I am fully confident the Lakers' front office could assemble in the future. I think that the Lakers' likelihood of trading Dwight rests, now and always, on whether or not they can keep him this offseason. Franchise player or no, Dwight is worth every cent of a maximum contract from the Los Angeles Lakers; the only question in my mind is whether Dwight would accept one.
Whether Dwight still retains that coveted "franchise player" label largely depends on whether he can fully recover from his back surgery, which has been one of the chief factors, if not the factor, working against the Lakers this season. Without his quickness and superlative jumping ability, he's merely a very good center instead of an utterly dominant one, so that naturally removes him from a qualification that requires him to be one of the league's best ten or so players. In fact, one could make a fair argument that the current Dwight is emphatically worse than Andrew Bynum was last year, as we only considered the caveat that Bynum, whose sheer low post dominance stands in stark -- and one might add, unappreciated -- contrast to the rather haphazard and generally ineffective post-ups of the current Dwight, was second best to only a Dwight at his peak. Dwight's biggest supposed advantage over Bynum that he almost never takes defensive plays off has been sadly disproved and that his instincts on that end are better has not necessarily figured in the results as of yet. Moreover, Dwight's superiority over Bynum on offense was driven by the fact that he was an athletic monster who could dunk anything within a few feet of the rim, hence the drooling over Dwight as a roll man and on cuts, and that Dwight has sadly not materialized yet, which is why Bynum's low post savvy is deeply missed as of now. This is not to say that the Lakers would be better off with a player who hasn't even seen the court yet and faces an even more excruciating free agent decision -- seriously, what do you do if you're Philadelphia: give him $100 million and risk the constant flood of knee injuries or watch him walk to a team that will ultimately pony up the money for an incredibly scarce commodity in free agency? -- but to illustrate the difference between expectations and reality.
Of course, we have not have had any indication that Howard won't recover from this surgery and although we can't chart a linear chart of improvement since he returned in preseason, it is a fair assumption that the Dwight who returns next year will be a far cry from the limited version we are currently graced with. That makes it very, very difficult to entertain the notion of trading Dwight because there quite literally is no equal value for peak Dwight besides LeBron James or Kevin Durant. The only reasons to trade him would be if you are convinced that he can't return to his peak level or that you get sufficient vibes that he's not going to re-sign in free agency. The latter is arguably more important than the former since losing Dwight for whatever reason means that you might as well blow up next year's team and start tanking for 2014 as any chance of contending would slip into nothingness. That noted, the distance between this team and contention, their recent return to form notwithstanding, is significant enough that you would probably need a transformative player such as peak Dwight to bridge the gap. As a result, it is unlikely that any return for Dwight helps the team in the short-term and worse, they could impinge upon the Lakers' 2014 cap space if care is not taken to make an unnecessarily shortsighted deal. As for the notion of Dwight leaving for greener pastures, it really doesn't exist since there basically are no greener pastures. He would have his choice of Atlanta or Dallas as free agent destinations, but neither offers the media attention Dwight craves and the Lakers will be positioned to basically remodel the team around him in 2014.
Keeping Dwight is thus the best short-term and long-term play both to preserve the Lakers' championship hopes for next season and give them a franchise cornerstone for the new iteration of the team that will be forged in 2014. Given the Lakers' current cap situation, it is arguably the only way to achieve both goals at the same time and again, only if he was both guaranteed never to return to form and gave no indication that he was going to stay should the Lakers consider trading him, although both criteria have been pointed out above as long shots at best. So long as the sliver of hope remains that peak Dwight is at the other end of the tunnel and the $100 million the Lakers will be dutifully required to surrender to him in free agency, retaining him is a move that the team simply has to make. Indeed, even if you're cynical about Dwight, it helps significantly to have an established star, a label Dwight still holds despite his struggles this year, in place for whomever you're trying to attract to L.A. in 2014. The future of the Lakers, for good or ill, belongs to Dwight Howard and one suspects that we'll enjoy how it works out before long.
The Great Mambino
There's little doubt in my mind that Dwight Howard is still a "franchise player". However, he's certainly far from that guy right now. Howard has always been a freak athlete who could overpower any defender with his overwhelming strength and explosiveness--without that, he's merely a very good player with great rebounding instincts and solid post defense.
Unfortunately, like everything else regarding the Lakers, the key chronological term is "now"--certainly not "eventually" or "sometime". Howard has been inconsistent with his energy and even ability from night to night, sometimes showing up as the monstrous wrecking ball that went for 31 points and 16 boards against Milwaukee, but also shrinking against the Bulls a week later, in a pathetic 8 point, 9 rebound effort.
Still, as Zach Lowe said last week, a player like Howard who's had five consecutive top-7 MVP finishes deserves more than 40-something games for onlookers to judge whether or not he's still an All-NBA caliber player. Not only is he coming off back surgery, but he's adjusting to a new city, a new franchise with unparalleled expectations, (two) new coaches and of course playing with three future Hall of Fame players. It's very easy to come down on the guy for not being everything we foolishly expected him to be, but he needs to be cut some slack considering not just the circumstances, but also the MVP candidate he's been for the past five years...including just 8 months ago.
Of course there's still a chance that Howard never recovers his Olympic-level athletic form post-surgery and remains this very good, but not elite, form. Even if that's the case, the Lakers have no way of knowing whether or not this will happen--like many surgeries, it's going to take time for the final result to bear out. All this means is that the gamble the Lakers took when trading for Howard has higher stakes than it did in August. Not only are they employing a player who could walk away at season's end for nothing, but they're also contemplating giving a $100 million dollar contract to a guy who in the end, might not be worth that deal. As I've gone through dozens of times before, this is the gamble the Lakers MUST take--not just because they've already committed themselves so deep into a Dwight Howard-centric future, but because a) the return on a half season from a half-Dwight will be for pennies on the dollar and b) if the Lakers aren't going to gamble on a 27 year-old former MVP, who else takes his place? Looking at the other options (Josh Smith? Andrew Bynum? Andre Iguodala?), there are no potential marquee players to build around.
The bottom line is that the Lakers must gamble on Dwight's recovery and re-signing as a free agent because not only are there few alternatives, but also that when healthy, he's one of the league's best three players. There's no price you can put on that. Trading him before the February deadline is foolish and short-sighted, especially considering it's only been 40-something games.
Is Dwight Howard a franchise player? Before we go any further, my first question back would be, was Andrew Bynum a franchise player? The Lakers made the right move in swapping Bynum for Howard no matter what happens going forward, and what has happened thus far. It's fun and conversational to discuss how it could have been, but the fact remains that Andrew "Potato Chip Knee" Bynum hasn't even played this season, so the move for Howard was the right move.
I digress, however, as the subject at hand is a Howard of the Dwight variety. Clearly, he looks like a shadow of the center that the Lakers lusted after for so very long. The defensive dominance wanes, the offensive moves are even more discombobulated and robotic than ever,, and his demeanor both on and off the court have been causes for concern. Still the large cloud looming over the Lakers, and Dwight, is that he isn't 100% healthy yet. Related, the biggest reason for optimism regarding Dwight is that very problem: he's still coming off of major back surgery that also affected nerves in his leg. There's still plenty of room for improvement from him individually on the basketball court. It has always been an unfortunate circumstance for the Lakers that Howard was in rehabilitation mode after his first major injury as a professional when they were finally able to get the deal done, but everybody knew the risk going into it, and it still deserves proper recognition.
If we solely look at his performance this season, and are brainwashed to forget what we've seen in the past, it's difficult to say he's a franchise player. However, giving up on Dwight Howard just a few months into his time with Lakers while he recovers from surgery is absurd. Dwight Howard is a franchise player, period. No caveats, no if's, and's, or but's. Obviously, he isn't going to carry a team of nobodies to a title but what percentage of championship caliber team was one All-NBA player with a rags to riches story? With the amount of talent in the league 1A players need 1B players, at the very least. LeBron didn't win a title in Cleveland, Kobe didn't win without Shaq or Pau (do I need to say Shaq didn't win until he played with Kobe?), and the list goes on and on. It's improbable, but not impossible, for a player to win as a franchise player without having similar talent surrounding him.
Dwight Howard won't be traded before the deadline, and he shouldn't be. Considering how fragile the Lakers circumstances are going into the future with their age and salary situation, the Lakers need to slam their phones down so hard it breaks the table if other teams come a callin' for Howard. If a GM leaves a voicemail regarding Dwight it needs to be immediately destroyed. Dwight needs to believe the front office is all-in with him as their future, and anything that creates doubt in his mind could be detrimental when it finally becomes time for him to make a decision come free agency.