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Can Dwight Howard return to the Lakers and produce like he never left?

The return of Dwight Howard is an admission by the Lakers that they made too many changes to a roster that won the title two seasons ago. Can he justify their faith in him by coming back and playing at a high level?

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2020 NBA Finals - Game Three

Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Dwight Howard.

Despite our best efforts, it’s pretty rare for any of us to be prescient enough to really know how any given NBA personnel decision will turn out. There’s too much context and variability in how a player’s role will be defined (and how they’ll adapt to it) for the view to ever be perfectly clear.

That said, there are some times when we do get things right. And when the Lakers allowed Dwight Howard to depart in free agency on the heels of winning the 2019-20 championship, it was easy to see the team would miss some of the specific skills he brought to the table.

After all, Dwight had just played a meaningful role as a physically and tactically elite defensive player who was also efficient offensively. No, he wasn’t a starter, and no, he wasn’t even a rotation mainstay in the playoffs, when the Lakers played smaller more often. But his contributions vs. Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets, plus his overall play (as well as his locker room and sideline levity) over the course of the full season seemed like they would be difficult to replace. And, well, that’s exactly what happened.

In bringing Dwight back this offseason, then, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office were owning up to that mistake. In fact, while Pelinka did not mention Dwight by name while speaking to the media last week, the Lakers head of basketball operations did outline what drove him to bring Dwight back (emphasis mine) when the team remade their roster this past offseason:

“I think going into the draft and free agency, there were really three primary goals and objectives that we wanted to accomplish with the roster. One was adding playmaking or a primary playmaker, two was shooting, and three was shifting back to — especially defensively — a model of two rebounding defensive centers like we had when we won the championship in 2020.

“Those were the goals we had in mind, and I think if you look at the complexion of the roster we feel like we addressed each of those three goals, and that was something we set out to do, so we feel good about that.”

The assertion here is pretty clear. Pelinka explicitly calls-back to an element from that title winning team that Dwight not only filled then, but continues to exemplify at this stage of his career. The question now, of course, is whether Dwight can justify the faith Pelinka and the Lakers showed in him by bringing him back for his third tour of duty with the organization. From my vantage point, I’m cautiously optimistic that he can.

Much like LeBron, who came into the NBA only a season before him, Dwight remains a physical marvel whose commitment to his body allows him to operate at a level that belies his years in the NBA. One only need to look at his statistics from his time in Philly last season and compare those to his 2019-20 season in Los Angeles to see that he can still be very productive. I mean, he’s literally the exact same player. There was a slight uptick in rebounds per game with the 76ers last season, but his per-minute and rate statistics are almost all unchanged and, considering the type of shape he keeps himself in, I simply do not expect that to change at this point.

From a mental standpoint, I no longer have any doubts about Dwight, his approach, or his desire to play whatever role is asked of him. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have said the same thing just a season ago, where reports of Dwight not wanting to “play for free” should he return after winning the title seemed to play a role in the Lakers’ decision to chase Marc Gasol and Dwight ending up in Philly.

But, after another productive season that saw him slide right into the same role he had in Los Angeles, and his willingness to now return while leading the charge for his fellow role players by preaching the need to sacrifice in order to accomplish the team’s collective goals, I think Dwight deserves the benefit of the doubt that his head is in the right place.

Now, if there is another question worth exploring, it will come down to whether Dwight fills the same type of rotational role he did in his last stop with the team and, more specifically, whether he ends up playing most of his minutes with LeBron or not. Back during the 2019-20 season, 835 of Dwight’s 1306 total regular season minutes came with LeBron on the floor. Those two had a strong chemistry together on both ends, with the Lakers posting a +9.4 net rating in their shared court time.

Considering this data, my hope is that LeBron and Dwight can again form the foundation of a strong lineup, hopefully while having a combination of shooting, enough defensive talent, and (at least) one additional ball handler to help add some shot creation to the mix. For example, a lineup of LeBron, Dwight, Carmelo Anthony, Kendrick Nunn, and Talen Horton-Tucker (or Kent Bazemore) could offer enough variety of offensive skills and enough defensive ability to create advantages on both sides of the ball and lead to a productive (mostly) bench unit. Add in the recent buzz that AD could end up starting at center, and the prospects of seeing Dwight fall right back into his backup big-man role to create potent bench lineups next to Bron feel even more likely, now.

Whether that exact grouping gets minutes or not remains to be seen. There’s an entire training camp and slate of preseason games to determine what lineups work, and which ones don’t. That said, what should already be determined is what type of role Dwight Howard will play for this team. It’s clear — not just from Pelinka’s comments about roster construction, but from Dwight being a priority target to return — that the Lakers are going back to a formula that probably shouldn’t have been tinkered with in the first place.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.