Unlike in 2013, the literal and figurative ball lies firmly in the hands of the Lakers when it comes to the basketball future Dwight Howard will or won’t have in Los Angeles.
After inking the center formerly known as “D12” to a non-guaranteed deal last week, reports have begun to surface regarding what the team envisions from Howard this upcoming season.
Among other things, the Lakers expect the 33-year-old to uphold a strict line of professionalism or else risk being placed on the dreaded double-secret probation list. Or in other words, being cut.
The “warning” given to Howard — as silly as it may sound — ultimately was the appropriate first step in both gauging the seriousness of his commitment to helping the team, and being forthright with the type of role that will be expected of him.
It’s a role he reportedly had to “convince” his teammates he was ready to accept. According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, among the responsibilities Howard will be tasked with this upcoming season is the specific challenge of defending the league’s top centers straight up, something he promised his teammates he could do:
“One of the questions that Lakers players asked Dwight Howard in their meeting was ‘can we trust you to guard the likes of Joel Embiid and other top centers in one-on-one matchups? Can we trust you to embrace your role?’ And Howard was convincing in his answers to everything. He just wants a chance to redeem himself as a Laker, and be one of the role players that... supports [LeBron James and Anthony Davis] in winning a potential NBA Championship.
While the defensive assignment of checking the opposition’s star big is not foreign for Howard, it does offer a clear message about what his role will consist of.
Much of what the Lakers want Howard to do will likely largely revolve around rebounding, blocking/contesting shots, catching the occasional lob and bodying the likes of Joel Embiid for 10-20 minutes a night so Anthony Davis does not have to.
Duties that once made Howard a star in this league — but that he also occasionally groused about — will now have to come in a more reduced and ego-free manner if he hopes to not only be a Laker, but extend his NBA career.
There is the question, however, of how effective Howard can still be as a defensive anchor. Especially in non-Davis lineups, and coming off a season in which he played in only nine games. That’s likely a genuine concern for a team whose currently only other option to maintain Davis’ wish of playing predominantly power-forward rests on the sporadic availability of JaVale McGee.
But if healthy, and when ignoring the dust cloud of drama that follows him from team to team, Howard has still been a relatively reliable and effective defender in the past few seasons.
In the short sample he had with Washington a year ago, Howard was 38th among 71 centers in ESPN’s defensive real-plus-minus metric. A year prior with Charolette — during a season in which he played in 81 games — he was 23rd among all fives.
In terms of his ability to individually defend star-caliber bigs well enough to make the Lakers’ gamble worthwhile, Howard does have enough recent and encouraging success to be cautiously optimistic. Key-word being: cautiously.
During the 2017-18 season, Howard defended Embiid for the sixth-most possessions (92) in the league, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. Of those six individual defenders, Howard held the 76ers’ big man to his third-lowest field-goal percentage and his lowest “player points differential” (the difference between points scored per 100 possessions by an offensive player on those possessions versus what he scores on average) among the group.
While the league’s defensive matchup data has proven to be noisy and sometimes faulty in some cases, Howard also performed well per his defensive play-type opportunities.
In that same season, the then-Hornet only allowed his opposition only 0.78 points per post-up possession and 0.72 points per isolation possession. That was good enough to rank in the 75th and 82nd percentiles of the league, respectively. They’re also startling good numbers for a player who has been mostly an outcast from every locker room he enters.
Although this was merely a few seasons ago, there does still remain a healthy amount of skepticism around the league whether or not Howard is still an effective player and someone who is serious about being a cog rather than the wheel. And it ultimately is up to Howard alone to prove his doubters wrong.
If he can’t, there will no longer will be second, third or fourth chances to be found in the NBA stratosphere for the once dominant center of the league. If he can, a basketball story ripe with the potential for redemption can maybe — just maybe — still be written.
All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.