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Most Interesting Lakers No. 7: Can Dwight Howard make good on his last fresh start?

If Dwight Howard can’t make things work with the Lakers this time, his second stint with the team will be even shorter than his first one.

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Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: For the second year in a row, the Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season. We will be going through all 20 training camp spots before the season begins, and today we continue with No. 7, Dwight Howard.

So I have to be honest here: Dwight Howard was not voted on in our initial tally for this Most Interesting Lakers countdown. This story was originally supposed to be about DeMarcus Cousins, who we had ranked second overall because of the possibility that one year removed from his original Achilles injury he could have put this team over the top.

But with Cousins likely done for the year with an ACL tear and facing possible legal consequences for alleged threats he made to his former girlfriend, it seems highly unlikely he’ll be a factor for the Lakers this season. The team had already signed Howard with the intent to replace Cousins before the allegations against him came out.

Can Howard be the same level of x-factor for the team that Cousins stood the chance to be before everything that happened over the last two weeks? That seems unlikely for a variety of reasons, which drastically limits the Lakers’ margin for error even further if they want to contend, and makes whether or not the addition of Howard works even more interesting to watch.

The Lakers will be Howard’s seventh team since he left them at the end of the infamous 2012-13 season, including two organizations (the Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies) who opted to waive Howard before he even played a game for them, and one (the Atlanta Hawks) who reportedly had players in the locker room literally cheering when they traded him away.

Since leaving the Houston Rockets, Howard hasn’t lasted longer than a season anywhere, with every “fresh start” going stale quicker than one of Howard’s fart jokes.

None of this is because Howard can’t play. He isn’t what he once was, sure, but even during the last three seasons in which he’s been jettisoned to five different teams, he still averaged 15 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 29.8 minutes per game. And outside of his nine-game season cut short by injury for the Washington Wizards last year, he’s stayed relatively healthy at every stop. Even if he isn’t an All-Star, he was still a useful player, but his demands for post touches and overall presence evidently were still so wearying that teams were in a rush to give up on him.

So why will the Lakers be any different? Why would Howard suddenly decide to change now, entering his 16th season at nearly 34 years old?

That’s what makes this setup so interesting. There isn’t much about Howard’s career that would suggest he has a ton of self awareness — remember, we’re talking about a player who irritated Steve Nash, one of the nicest teammates in NBA history, to the degree that Nash (Steve Nash!) openly chastised him on the floor — but even he has to have realized that this is his last chance.

And even if all the exiles leading up to this didn’t drive that home for Howard, the Lakers publicly making this possibly the most openly reluctant signing of a future Hall-of-Famer ever has to have made it clear to Howard that if he can’t make things work here, there aren’t going to be many more teams willing to take a chance on him.

Remember, in the wake of Cousins’ injury in the middle of August, the Lakers had to be somewhat desperate to find a replacement. Even with that seeming lack of leverage, they still have leaked non-stop that Howard will be gone at the first sign that he’s not committed to playing the role they want him to, or the first instance that his schtick wears thin in the locker room. They’ve publicly let it be known that they can cut Howard at any time, with no financial penalty for doing so.

One would think that all of this has to have been at least a bit humbling for Howard, to go from one of the most sought-after players in the league during his first stint with the Lakers, a player the team prostrated itself to get to stay with their infamous #StayD12 billboards, to returning six years later and having to practically beg them for a flimsy-at-best spot on the team.

Can Howard deliver under those circumstances? Only time will tell if that’s a tenable setup to success for him, or if he’ll wilt under the pressure of playing a new role in a pressure cooker, but if he can stay healthy, he’s at least in theory the type of player that could make an impact on a LeBron James team. But to do so, Howard will need to embrace the role the Lakers are laying out, of a defensively active rebounder and willing screener who is content to finish the occasional lob and not do much else.

Howard has never been willing to stick in that role for very long before, but the Lakers (and by extension, the rest of the league’s lack of interest) have made it clear this is his last shot. If Howard can do the things that allow him to contribute to winning as a role player, he might just be able to resuscitate his career and alter the narrative on himself as he approaches his twilight. If he can’t, he won’t be a Laker for long, and he’ll prove a lot of the criticisms and concerns about this signing correct. This will either be the fresh start in which Howard can actually start fresh, or the end. Which one it is will make Howard’s time here worth paying attention to.

The countdown so far...

20. Aric Holman

19. Jordan Caroline

18. Devontae Cacok

17. Kostas Antetokounmpo

16. Zach Norvell Jr.

15. Troy Daniels

14. Rajon Rondo

11. (tie) The 15th roster spot

11. (tie) Talen Horton-Tucker

11. (tie) Jared Dudley

10. Quinn Cook

9. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

8. JaVale McGee

7. Dwight Howard

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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