Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as the 30-second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with Dwight Howard.
It has been nearly a year since Dwight Howard joined the Lakers for the second time, and it is still difficult to process the fact that Howard hasn’t just been one of the team’s most productive players, but that he has become a beloved one.
Of all the strange things that have taken place during the 2019-20 season, Howard’s redemption in the eyes of Lakers fans and the league at large was one of the most unpredictable. He began the year as a scrap heap addition, on a contract that literally guaranteed by the day. As the league nears its restart, Howard is a fringe Sixth Man of the Year contender, a meaningful part of the Lakers’ third-ranked defense, and a player whose absence would have been felt profoundly had he elected not to come to Orlando.
To be fair, Howard is a backup center on a team that already has JaVale McGee and the potential to go small with Anthony Davis. He isn’t the reason the Lakers had the best record in the Western Conference, but one only has to look back to the start of the 2018-19 season to see how important a backup center can be during the regular season.
Unlike the last time he was in Los Angeles, Howard has bought into his role this year. He is meant to provide defense and rebounding, and he has a top-10 rebounding percentage in the league. He also is asked to finish a few lob passes, save Davis from having to play the five, and set screens of questionable legality. Who can forget his crowning moment of the season, when he sprung Danny Green open for a game-tying 3-pointer by literally pulling Seth Curry out of the play?
The 15-year veteran also provides a little more heft when McGee is being muscled around in the paint. One notable example of that came in February in Denver when Frank Vogel elected to start Howard in the second half after Nikola Jokic had 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting at intermission. The Lakers prevailed in overtime as Howard clocked 30 minutes, his highest total of the season.
Howard remains one of the best post-up defenders in the league, allowing 0.67 points per possession, per NBA.com. He’s also been serviceable in isolations, which generally happen when Howard gets switched onto a perimeter player and is thus at a quickness disadvantage, conceding 0.81 points per possession. Consider that a league-average team scores about 0.95 points per possession in the halfcourt, and Howard’s value shines through.
Although he has lost a little bit of lift due to his back injuries, Howard is also still a monster finisher around the rim. He knows what he does well, and he has played to his strength this season, taking 87% of his shots within 4 feet of the basket (per Cleaning the Glass) and converting on 78% of them. The dunks aren’t as impressive as they used to be, but they’re no less efficient. Most of Howard’s offense doesn’t even come from the Lakers calling his number — he’s just there for second-chance putbacks.
Even though McGee is the starter, Vogel has leaned on Howard to close more games, likely due to his defensive awareness. Howard ranks sixth on the team in total clutch minutes behind LeBron James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Green, and Alex Caruso. That has only resulted in 38 total clutch minutes, but the Lakers have been so dominant thus far that even James has only played 97 clutch minutes over the first 63 games.
But despite Howard’s bounce-back season, there are still matchups where he is ill-suited to produce. The Bucks and the Clippers both played Howard off the floor, even in Lakers wins, a testament to the small-ball direction of the league. Howard’s value in other matchups, like the aforementioned Denver, Utah, or even when he roughed up Zion Williamson in L.A.’s most recent win over New Orleans, make him better than your average backup center, but there is a point when the Lakers will no longer be able to rely on him.
For a guy who started the year without an NBA home, that’s still a big step forward. He won’t win Sixth Man of the Year because he doesn’t fit the score-first offensive creator prototype of recent winners (see: Williams, Lou and Crawford, Jamal), but there are few bench players who have been more impactful than Howard this season.
Combine that with Howard’s increasing advocacy off the court, specifically his commitment to donating his Orlando paycheck to charity, and it’s remarkable the 180 Howard has made in his public image. He’s a locker room veteran who inspires his teammates instead of leaving them celebrating his departure, and that has allowed him to once again contribute to a championship-level team. That said team is the Lakers would have seemed impossible at this time last year, but Howard has defied the odds. Regardless of any of his limitations, they’re lucky to have him for the restart.