Dwight Howard has had a storybook redemption season. The Los Angeles Lakers center has not only gone from NBA cast-off to valued role player on a championship contender, but he’s achieved a task that seemed impossible this fall: Winning over the hearts and minds of Lakers fans in the process.
Part of how Howard has done so is with his play, to be sure. The Lakers are slightly better when he plays than when he sits, and Howard is averaging 7.8 points and 7.8 rebounds while accepting a reduced role that allows him to be more effective in the 19.8 minutes per game he does play.
But Howard has also made plenty of fans by developing a knack for almost always saying just the right things. Take how he described what he’s tried to give this team on a nightly basis, for example.
“I just try to come in the game and do whatever I can to help this team win, provide energy and effort, and play with the Mamba Mentality,” Howard said on Spectrum SportsNet after the Lakers’ most recent win, literally growling to punctuate the reference.
Any fans of the late Kobe Bryant will immediately get the small tribute Howard just gave his former teammate, and no matter how much time passes, it will always sound slightly strange to hear Kobe-isms coming out of Howard’s mouth after how much those two players so transparently feuded during the one season they played together.
But Howard has clearly changed. He’s grieving Bryant off the floor, and in the spirit of what he said above, he’s channeling him on it. Howard is doing everything he can to give the Lakers the best chance to win, and possibly the most effective way he’s done so — with arguments to be made for his defense, screening and rebounding — has been how efficiently he’s scored.
Howard may only be giving the Lakers just a little under eight points per game, but he’s not using many possessions to do so. Howard is taking just 4.3 shots per game, and has only taken 229 this season.
By limiting his attempts, however, Howard has found a previously unprecedented level of efficiency for himself, shooting 73.8% from the field. If that number held for a full season and met certain statistical qualifiers, that wouldn’t just shatter his previous career-best of 63.3%, but would also be better than Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA record of 72.7% that he set in 1973.
Now, Howard would have to make 131 more shots — he’s hit 169 so far — to actually pass that record (players need to have made at least 300 to qualify). And hitting such a threshold seems unlikely — not to mention antithetical to what has made Howard successful so far — in the last 29 games of the season.
Still, while most don’t associate “Mamba Mentality” with efficiency — Kobe was never shy about taking tons of shots, after all — that is too surface level of analysis when comparing Bryant’s mindset to what Howard has brought to the Lakers. At a base level, “Mamba Mentality” was always a drive to win at any cost, which for Bryant often involved sacrificing efficiency to help his team (Kobe assists, anyone?), while Howard has sacrificed the chance to take the kinds of difficult shots he used to crave at every stop.
The former sacrifice gets players pilloried, while the latter makes their achievements less noticeable. Both are worthwhile pursuits, depending on what a team needs from a specific player and what their skillset is.
But even if he can’t actually set a new field-goal percentage record, Howard is still integral to the Lakers. And he’s been recognized for that importance by the league, getting to take part in the Slam Dunk Contest tonight as part of the Saturday night 2020 NBA All-Star Game festivities.
For as showy as the dunk contest can be, maybe that’s the perfect way to honor Howard. Letting him take simple shots he’s taken all season to help the Lakers in quiet ways, this time on one of the league’s biggest stages. And if he brings the same “Mamba Mentality” he’s brought all year, it’s impossible to rule out the chance of him pulling off the upset.
After all, nothing is a bigger upset than the 34-year-old being right here, right now in the first place.