Dwight Howard has been many things for the Lakers during his multiple stints donning the purple and gold. He’s been anything from the centerpiece, to the energy off the bench, to a positive locker room voice across his three separate stops in Los Angeles. Even prior to Sunday’s game, head coach Frank Vogel praised his adaptability this season, as he’s been phased out of the starting lineup and rotation entirely for long stretches of the campaign before being reinserted as a starter due to the absence of Anthony Davis.
But out of all the things he’s been, particularly this season, the most consistent has been an honest voice. When the Lakers were blown out in Denver in mid-January, it was Dwight that rightly criticized the team’s lack of effort, particularly on the defensive end. His criticism hasn’t always been received well — take his sideline brouhaha with Davis — but he has always kept it real.
All that makes his quotes, or lack thereof, on Sunday all the more telling. A person who is always inclined towards finding the positives in situations, and never one to keep his remarks short, Howard admitted multiple times that he was at a loss for words after the Lakers were routed by the Pelicans at home. In fact, he said some variation of that phrase three separate times during his brief press conference.
“It’s real easy to give up, throw in the towel and say negative things,” Howard said. “I’m really lost for words. But we have to stay positive. We can’t sulk in defeat and we can’t quit on each other. I know it’s been a rough, very rough season, but nah, I think that would be bad.”
It was an illuminating peek into a Lakers locker room that has remained resilient all season. For so long, the message was that of patience and hope that, once the team reached full health, their true colors would show.
Perhaps it was Davis’ latest injury, or the Lakers lackluster effort leading to back-to-back losses out of the All-Star break, or the simple realization that they may never get fully healthy that led to a change in tone on Sunday. Or maybe it was the lack of movement at the trade deadline to change up anything on the roster, and the follow-up lack of moves in the buyout market — effectively the front office waving the white flag on the season — that has made the Lakers wake up and smell the roses.
Most likely, it was a combination of everything mentioned that has led the team to this point, but all we know for certain is that it looks like they have given up.
The team that took the floor on Sunday did not look like one ready to fight its way to the sixth seed and out of the play-in game. Vogel called it a long shot for the Lakers to get out of the play-in game even before the team lost to the Clippers and Pelicans to drop 8.5 games back of Denver and Dallas, currently tied for the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively.
The grim reality is that the Lakers are much, much closer to falling out of the play-in game entirely than playing their way up the seedings. Their only hope in the former regard is that every team currently out of the play-in game in the Western Conference — Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, Oklahoma City and Houston — is more or less openly tanking this season.
But even that’s not an option for a Lakers team who doesn’t own their first round pick. Instead, they’re stuck in a weird limbo where they may make the play-in game by default, but look far, far removed from a team capable of making noise in the playoffs, if they were to even miraculously get there.
In fairness, Howard’s comments and tone wasn’t the universal message of the night. The always stubborn Russell Westbrook still portrayed some of that hope, noting the Lakers have over 20 games left to try to figure something out.
“We understand a game like tonight we’re supposed to win and, yeah, in the NBA, sometimes you get beat,” Westbrook said. “Teams come in and it happens, but we know we have a bigger goal in mind and that’s ultimately to play for a championship at the end of the year.”
On one hand, it’s unrealistic for Westbrook and the team to think any differently than winning a title. The measure of success in the NBA is a title, and it’s the goal of all 30 NBA franchises. Specifically, this Lakers team was seen as one of those championship contenders before the season started.
On the other hand, everyone has seen the Lakers play this year. This is not a team peaking at the right time. This is not a team that has ever peaked. Over the course of the year, it has been a downward trajectory with a few scattered positives along the way. There are no realistic title aspirations for this team, hence why the front office so obviously gave up on them.
What we know is the Lakers will finish out its 22 remaining games much like the preceding 60: By playing to the level of the competition. It will lead to one or two more fun wins, and an equal amount of more frustrating losses.
But what the Lakers are realizing and accepting is that this team is too flawed to fulfill the goals it set this season.
“I don’t really have a lot of words,” Howard said. “Just got to stay positive, man. That’s all I can say. I don’t like to look backward and say certain things. But, yeah, pretty much lost (for words).”
After his postgame media session was over, Howard literally apologized to reporters for not being able to find the right words to describe his disappointment. But his (and the team’s) realization was clear in the words he said.
Or, more aptly, the words he couldn’t find.