Heading into the season, Dwight Howard was one of the biggest question marks on any NBA team’s roster. Since then, he’s proven himself to be a weapon not just on the court, but also a net positive off of it. One huge reason for his positive impact: His understanding and welcoming of the role Frank Vogel and the Lakers organization slotted him into.
Howard was asked recently during a taping of Spectrum SportsNet’s “Backstage Lakers” about his role, and detailed what he likes about it, and how it’s made him a better player:
“I enjoy coming off the bench. I get the opportunity to see the schemes that the other team is doing (and) where I’m needed on the floor, whether that be up on the pick and rolls, if I need my energy to be up, if I need to come in the game and get a couple blocks. I’m reading the defense, I’m reading the offense and I’m just seeing where I can be of service to my teammates.
“It’s a very different role for me but I really do enjoy it... I just want to be the person who can see everything on the court before I even get on.”
So, in theory, this all makes a ton of sense. And at the beginning of the season, Howard was regularly responsible for an immediate and tangible impact on the game. He was especially notable on the defensive end, where he and Anthony Davis were absolutely suffocating.
Lately, however, Howard (and the rest of the team) have slipped noticeably. Over the last 10 games, the Lakers have been giving up 111 points per 100 possession while Howard has been on the court, and he’s been committing 7.5 fouls per 36 minutes. This is a far cry from how impressive he was at the beginning of the year.
Now, some of this has to do with Avery Bradley getting hurt (and the less defensively stout Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma returning to the rotation). With Bradley on the court, Howard had fewer mistakes to clean up. Both Kuzma and Rondo are susceptible to mistakes on the defensive end that puts Howard in situations where he has no other option but to foul.
That said, Howard has himself to blame, too. All too often, he commits silly fouls all over the court that don’t really serve a purpose. It’s one thing to commit an illegal screen trying to gain an edge that helps free a teammate, or to get caught being a little too physical for offensive board that could create a new possession. But reaching fouls on the perimeter committed on bigs he’s guarding just get opponents into the bonus at an increased rate.
Howard was always going to regress from how incredibly he was playing, and it’s altogether possible that once the Lakers’ full rotation is healthy once again, he progresses closer to the end of the spectrum he started the season at. And to be clear, his positive presence in the locker room cannot be overlooked, especially, somehow, as it pertains to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
If he is going to take those strides, though, it’ll start with his continued acceptance of the role he’s played for the Lakers. That was the starting point of how he was successful at first, and based on his quote, it doesn’t sound like he’s soured on coming off the bench at all, so this remains a potential starting point to returning to that solid play. As the schedule gets more difficult in December, the Lakers will need the version of Howard they got at the beginning of the year to show back up, or the competition they’ll face will be even tougher than they thought.