On Wednesday, Dwight Howard played against the Orlando Magic — the team that drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft — for the first time in 13 months. A lot has changed since Howard left Orlando, like the fact that he’s played for five teams in the seven years that have passed, but he seems to have found a home with the Los Angeles Lakers — a team few people ever expected him to return to.
Howard isn’t the All-Star center he was when he first arrived to Los Angeles in 2012, but he’s been a star in his role, to borrow a phrase from head coach Frank Vogel. Through 25 games, Howard has posted a defensive rating of 99, according to Basketball Reference, the highest defensive rating he’s posted since his last season with the Magic. Back then, he ranked third in the league in defensive rating. this season, he’s ranked seventh.
Howard’s bounce-back campaign has earned him praise from virtually everyone in the locker room, including LeBron James, who talked to reporters about Howard’s impact on the Lakers after their win over the Magic on Wednesday (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“He’s thriving. He’s thriving. He’s gonna have more years in his career and he’s gonna add an ingredient to our team’s success because of the role that he’s accepting. He’s just making the most of it every single night. Defending at a high level, rebounding, blocking shots, catching lobs and with zero ego.
“When his number is called he goes out there, and when he’s subbed out he cheers on his teammates every single night. We were lucky to be able to snatch him up late in the summer like that, and we’re happy to have him.”
Obviously the circumstances in which Howard was brought on weren’t ideal, but it’s hard to imagine the Lakers being as successful as they are without the infectious effort and energy Howard brings off the bench. Honestly, it’s probably not too far fetched to say he’s the heart and soul of this team.
There was a reason Howard was a free agent in mid-August, when most of the impact players are off the board, but the Lakers took advantage of a low-risk, high-reward situation out of desperation and they got lucky. That’s not to discredit the work Howard did to get himself to where he is mentally and physically, but it took the perfect storm to get Howard back to where is — and where he is is really, really good.
When you consider where Howard was in his career just a year ago, it’s hard not to be happy for him and impressed with what he’s meant to the Lakers this season. Here’s to at least another 73 games of Howard’s comeback year.