Editor’s Note: Welcome to our “2020 Lakers Season In Review” series, where we’ll be looking back at every member of this Lakers roster as the offseason commences, and answering some questions about what they contributed (or didn’t) to the team’s 17th championship, as well as discussing what their situation is moving forward. Today, we continue with Dwight Howard.
How did he play?
Dwight Howard came to the Lakers with almost no expectations this season. He had bounced around five teams over the past three years and had just been cut by the Grizzlies before even playing a minute for them. The Lakers were in a pinch after the injury to DeMarcus Cousins and gave Howard one more chance to prove that he was a changed man, this time on a minimum contract that didn’t guarantee until January.
Howard responded with his most impactful season since 2015.
He willingly accepted the backup center role to JaVale McGee and brought a toughness to the Lakers second unit. Howard generally played with LeBron James to start the second and fourth quarters, and those lineups physically overpowered opposing bench lineups. The Howard/James/Alex Caruso trio appeared in 52 regular-season games and had a +22.8 net rating.
Individually, Howard led the team in offensive and defensive rebounding rate. He was an imposing presence at the basket, as opponents took 5.6% fewer shots at the rim when Howard was in the game. He also was tremendously efficient on the offensive end. Howard took 88% of his shots at the rim, either sealing and immediately dunking the ball or serving as a lob threat. He rarely hunted his own offense, and 27.6% of his offensive possessions came on putbacks. Howard had the second-highest offensive rating among rotation players (behind Danny Green) thanks to his ability to clean up everything near the basket.
Most importantly, Howard was a model citizen throughout the regular season. Frank Vogel found a way to maximize Howard’s contributions, and he bought in. He stepped up into larger roles when the matchup called for it, but ceded his minutes without complaint against teams that forced the Lakers to go small. That behavior would prove valuable in the postseason, when Howard’s role fluctuated dramatically.
The Lakers center played his normal minutes against Portland before being benched against Houston. He entered the starting lineup midway through the Denver series and stayed there against Miami, but played limited minutes beyond his starting shift against the Heat until Caruso took his spot in Game 6. Through it all, Howard was ready for whatever the Lakers needed. He showed high on the pick-and-roll against Dame Lillard and battled in the post against Nikola Jokic. He was the loudest cheerer on the bench no matter what.
In his 16th season, he was finally a champion. The joy of his teammates was overwhelming when Howard hit the last Lakers basket of the playoffs, a logo three to end their title-winning campaign.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
Howard is an unrestricted free agent after completing his minimum contract with the Lakers. Because he has only been with the team for one season, the Lakers have no bird rights and thus no ability to sign Howard at above the minimum unless they use some of their cap space.
Howard has made about $240 million in salary since entering the league in the 2004 NBA Draft. This is probably his last chance to sign a contract worth more than the veteran’s minimum since he’ll turn 35 before the start of next season.
Will he be back?
If Howard wants to sign another contract for the minimum, the Lakers would happily welcome him back. Although paint-bound centers are somewhat being phased out of the league, playing big was part of the Lakers’ identity on both ends of the floor. They like to keep teams out of the paint and punish them on the glass, skills that are still in Howard’s tool box. The Lakers also liked having multiple capable centers to keep Anthony Davis fresh for the postseason.
Furthermore, Howard’s defense on Jokic during the playoffs was key to taking the Nuggets center out of his comfort zone. That being said, the Lakers can find other centers on the minimum.
The role they asked Howard to play during the regular season can be accomplished by other players, like Klutch Sports client Nerlens Noel, at about 85% of his effectiveness. In the postseason, the Lakers have a template for success playing small. Davis can play more minutes at the five if necessary.
The Lakers would probably rather spend their limited resources on playmakers and wings who can ease the creation burden on James. They don’t need to overpay for a center, even one who fit their ethos as perfectly as Howard did this season. That essentially puts Howard’s future in his own hands. If he wants to come back to the Lakers, he’ll have to sacrifice some money. If he wants to cash in, that probably won’t happen in Los Angeles.
Howard didn’t have any other options last season than to join the Lakers. He’ll assuredly have more choices now, but it won’t be so easy to recreate the magic he found with this team. The Lakers have long expected Howard to deliver multiple tiles for this franchise. Even if he’s not the driving force, he still has a chance to live up to that promise.