Editor’s Note: This week is “What If?” Week at SB Nation, so we’ll be taking a look at various hypothetical scenarios involving the Lakers. Today, we try to figure out what would have happened if Dwight Howard had never left.
When the Lakers traded for Dwight Howard in 2012, he was supposed to be the next great big man in a historic line of franchise icons, many of whom had been acquired by trade. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal (though he was a free agent) and Pau Gasol all came to Los Angeles after previous stops in their careers and vaulted the Lakers into title contention.
Howard’s story arc mirrored those other players almost too perfectly. He had achieved Hall of Fame-worthy individual success in a small market, but it was time for him to take the next step by coming to Los Angeles to win championships. He seemed almost destined to wear purple and gold.
But Howard’s first year with the Lakers was a disaster. Injuries, a coaching change and overarching ego clashes doomed their season, and instead of Howard shepherding in a new era of Lakers basketball, he left in free agency the following July, headed to Houston to partner with James Harden.
The Lakers spent the rest of the decade in complete and utter futility, repeatedly setting franchise records for losses and becoming a laughingstock rather than the gold standard for the league. But maybe if they had kept an in-his-prime superstar, things might have been different.
So what would have happened if Dwight Howard had stayed with the Lakers? Let’s think about how recent Lakers history would have changed.
Dwight and Kobe’s relationship
One of the reasons Howard had one foot out the door the entire season was his inability to get along with Kobe Bryant, the established superstar of the Lakers. Bryant had won titles with dominant big men in O’Neal and Gasol previously, and wanted to help Howard achieve the same success, which meant Bryant would take the lead.
Howard wasn’t so keen on being a supporting player, at least not to Bryant. They famously clashed in public and behind closed doors, even if they attempted to make light of the feud. The lasting image of Bryant coming out to the Lakers bench moments after Howard was ejected from the final game of the season, Game 4 against San Antonio, is emblematic of how the two were never on the same page.
If Howard stayed, that would have meant that he and Bryant were able to find some common ground, and that Bryant would have softened a bit in his leadership over Howard instead of continuously telling him to “learn how it’s done”. In hindsight, that seems damn near impossible considering what we know about Bryant, but maybe his desire to win was so overwhelming that he was willing to make concessions to keep Howard around. Perhaps the arduous process of recovering from his Achilles injury would convince Bryant that he needed Howard, and that the two of them could forge a path forward together.
The 2013-14 Lakers season
The Lakers entered the 2013-14 hoping to compete for the playoffs, but they made some salary-cutting moves given that they no longer had the expectation of contending for a title. With Howard in tow, they probably wouldn’t have amnestied Metta World Peace and would have retained him as their starting small forward. Artest was surprisingly effective in the 2012-13 season (I had remembered him aging more poorly, but he had a +4.2 net rating, best on the team), but the Lakers dumped him to save money and give opportunities to younger players in his stead. Say goodbye to Xavier Henry — and those awesome dunks — and Wes Johnson in this scenario.
Now over a year removed from back surgery, Howard was in prime form once more, still capable of dominating the league at age 28. It’s easy to forget how good Howard had been with the Magic after the stink of his Lakers tenure, but he won three Defensive Player of the Year awards in Orlando and earned six all-NBA honors — including five first-team selections. He was an All-Star and second-team all-NBA in 2013-14 with Houston, and it stands to reason he would have performed similarly in Los Angeles, particularly since he could have started the season as the focal point on offense while Bryant rehabbed.
A healthy Howard means the Lakers probably don’t sign Chris Kaman (and miss out on a meme for the ages), but they thankfully still need to fill out their backcourt with Nick Young, and maybe Jodie Meeks. Steve Blake becomes Howard’s pick-and-roll partner instead of draining game-winning threes in his face, but the Lakers are probably a much improved team in the former situation.
They started the season 13-13 while waiting for Bryant to comeback and then essentially closed up shop once Bryant suffered a knee injury after his return. A .500 team plus Dwight Howard would have been firmly in the playoff chase and would have kept contending. Furthermore, Bryant would have been afforded more time to rehab; the Achilles injury sapped some fundamental juice from his game, but 10-12 months off instead of eight might have turned him into a league-average shooting guard by the end of the regular season instead of a complete shell of his former self.
The Lakers are probably still not good enough to overtake San Antonio, or even Oklahoma City, in the Western Conference, but a playoff appearance makes them more attractive in free agency.
2014 and beyond
The Lakers went big-game hunting in the summer of 2014, but they probably don’t have the juice to do that with Howard and Bryant’s contracts on the books. Presumably, Pau Gasol has left in free agency because of continued disagreements with Mike D’Antoni, though it’s plausible the Lakers dealt him at the 2014 trade deadline for more complementary pieces with Howard. Either way, this is still the Kobe-Dwight show.
The team continues to search for pieces on the margins to elevate their star big man. D’Antoni may or may not have still been around, but at the very least, there’s no way the team would have hired Byron Scott to coach Howard. No Julius Randle without a lottery pick, but the Lakers may have still found their way to Jordan Clarkson in the second round given that they bought that pick. In free agency, the Lakers would have made a strong push for Kyle Lowry, (forgive me) Luol Deng, or a Trevor Ariza reunion.
Unfortunately, the Lakers’ ceiling is still dependent on Bryant returning to form. So long as Bryant’s body continues to break down in the aftermath of the Achilles injury, Howard alone isn’t good enough to make the Lakers a contender, not in the Western Conference. The Lakers are probably good enough to continue making the playoffs, but that means they lose their picks to the Suns (or whoever they happened to trade them to) and the Magic due to the Nash and Howard trades. They need to pair Howard with a second star, and it’s difficult to do that without any draft capital. Howard eventually succumbs to injuries himself, wears out his welcome, and the rebuild is delayed by several years.
That means no string of No. 2 picks, and probably no Anthony Davis trade. LeBron James might still come to Los Angeles for his own interests, and it’s anybody’s guess who would have been on the team when he got here. The good news is the M.U.D. squad definitely would have been available in any timeline.
Dwight’s second act
Without Howard leaving in 2013, there is no way for him to come back as the forgotten hero in 2019 and perform repentance. As painful as it was to mortgage the franchise’s future in 2012 only to see Howard leave after one year, much of that hurt has been undone by seeing Howard produce in a secondary role and improbably become a lovable fan favorite. I personally would not want to sacrifice this Dwight Howard season (and Lakers campaign as a whole) for a couple of early playoff exits in previous years.
The Lakers went all-in on Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in 2012, and they could only succeed if both of them produced at an All-Star level or somewhere close. Even if Howard stayed with the Lakers on a new contract, he alone could not make up for the huge cost it took to acquire Nash, one that the team would essentially be paying off for the rest of the decade.
After going all-in and busting, this team needed to rebuild. The Lakers held on to illusions of contention through the end of Bryant’s career, and likely would have done the same for however long Howard donned purple and gold. He wasn’t the savior then, and he wouldn’t have been even if he had stayed. The only “What If?” that personally haunts me is if Howard’s presence could have prevented Bryant from rushing his original Achilles comeback, but wishing for more than 17 years of Bryant’s excellence feels greedy at this point.
Looking back, Howard and the Lakers weren’t destined to be together in 2012. They tried to make it work for a year and then rightfully went their separate ways. Eventually, the Lakers were much better off for it.