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Dwight Howard may finally be exactly what the Lakers need

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Nothing has been more surprising during the preseason than Dwight Howard becoming a steady rotation player for the Lakers.

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NBA: Preseason-Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

During the middle of last season, I posited a theory that the Lakers center position had been cursed ever since Dwight Howard’s lone, ignominious season season in Los Angeles, and the only fix would be acquiring Anthony Davis.

Lo and behold, the Lakers now have Davis. But instead of Davis filling in at center, his desire to play power forward created the opportunity for one of the more unlikely reunions in recent NBA history — Howard is back in Los Angeles, and even more surprisingly, it might be going well.

The circumstances for Howard’s return to the Lakers could not have been more stacked against him. The former eight-time all-NBA center has been traded three times during the last three offseasons and bought out by two other teams, all while former teammates have actively celebrated his departure. Back injuries limited his 2018-19 season to nine games, and the Lakers front office was so wary of the drama Howard brings that his contract is non-guaranteed.

On top of that, Howard is only even in L.A. because of DeMarcus Cousins’ ACL tear. He came in specifically as a backup option without any assurances that he will be on the Lakers for the long haul.

And yet, in spite of how he got to this point, Howard could be exactly what the Lakers need.

The Lakers recognized early last season that JaVale McGee was unable to handle a full-time center load. He needed a backup not just for spot duty, but to essentially split minutes. When Howard first started working out with the team, even before the front office decided to sign him, the Lakers brass raved about his conditioning. He has played in all five preseason games for the team thus far, averaging 18 minutes per contest, and has been getting bouncier as the season approaches.

First, look at how little lift Howard gets on this (admittedly bad) lob from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope during the preseason opener:

Fast forward to now, and he looked sufficiently springier in the latest preseason game, and though he’ll never be confused with dunk contest champion Dwight Howard, there is something to work with here. So long as McGee can be limited about 24 minutes per game, which may require some Davis at the five lineups, Howard has done his first job.

Howard isn’t just soaking up minutes either; he’s actually been quite productive. McGee isn’t the greatest rebounder, but Howard is gobbling up boards. The newest Laker is securing 36.9% of available defensive rebounds during the preseason, a monstrous total that easily surpasses last season’s league-leading rate of 31.5%. The Lakers have an excellent transition force in LeBron James, and cleaning the defensive glass is the first step towards creating fast breaks.

James’ lone 3-pointer Wednesday came in semi-transition off a Howard defensive board. Howard’s nine defensive rebounds led to only nine points in Monday’s game, but the Lakers missed two layups and two free throws that could have added to that total. Howard isn’t the type of rebounder who chases stats and doesn’t box out, either; his teams have generally rebounded better on both ends of the floor when he’s on the court.

As a defender, Howard’s 98.0 defensive rating — how many points per 100 possessions the Lakers allow when Howard is on the floor — during the preseason would be fantastic spread out over 82 games, but it’s actually an unimpressive mark on when the Lakers’ team defense has been even better than that over the first five games. Howard only fares better than Devontae Cacok, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, David Stockton, and Quinn Cook as a defender thus far.

Frank Vogel isn’t going to make Howard do anything out of his comfort zone on defense, meaning drop coverages galore since the former Defensive Player of the Year lacks the lateral quickness to really keep up with the space of modern NBA offenses. That puts a natural ceiling on how effective Howard can be on that end, but he still is a substantial upgrade over what the Lakers thought they had in Cousins heading into the season.

Where Cousins had Howard beat was in his offensive creation, though Howard has shown glimpses of growth as a playmaker. Howard said during training camp that Wilt Chamberlain is his favorite player, and he has been inspired by Chamberlain’s willingness to sacrifice his scoring and explore other facets of his game. Surely, no one expected passing to be what Howard was talking about, but Howard dished out six assists in Monday’s preseason game, and has been a more willing ball mover than at any point in his career.

The Dwight Howard who was so highly hyped in 2012-13 may have made some passes out of the post, but he rarely showed an ease in dribble handoffs or surveying the floor from the top of the key or wing and making plays from there. It’s unlikely that such instances will become staples of the Lakers’ playbook, but the fact that Howard is keeping the offense in rhythm rather than being an extra burden on the team’s playmakers is eye-opening.

When Howard came to Los Angeles seven years ago, he talked a big game, but his actual game failed to live up. This time around — though it seemed like a cliché during the summer — he wanted to let his actions do the talking, and they are.

Howard isn’t close to the player he was when the Lakers mortgaged their future to trade for him. Maybe he doesn’t have to be. (Although, no one would complain if Howard could still jump like he did in his twenties.) The Lakers don’t need an alpha dog who demands touches in the post and refuses to subsume his ego for the betterment of the team. They need a role player who can complement the existing stars on the roster.

That’s what’s been most impressive about Howard’s second act in Los Angeles. He doesn’t stick out anymore. Those broad shoulders and ear-to-ear grin have diminished a little, but at least now he fits in.

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