How Dwight Howard Must Improve to Become LA Lakers' Leader Someday

Sim Risso@@SimRissoFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2013

Howard's not maximizing his potential or that of his teammates because of a lack of maturity.
Howard's not maximizing his potential or that of his teammates because of a lack of maturity.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

There's no doubting the talent that Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard possesses. Anybody that hasn't been living under a rock for the past five years can tell you he's the most gifted big man the NBA has to offer.

The question with Howard is his motivation, and whether or not he's got enough of it to be a cornerstone on a franchise as prestigious as the Lakers.

The expectation that comes along with the Lakers—from the players, front office and fanbase—is to win a championship every year. It's not to be competitive, it's not to qualify for the playoffs, it's not to win the Pacific Division—it's to win a championship.

Every year. In order to meet that expectation, you need to embrace it, and it's questionable whether that's something Howard is willing to do.

Part of what's holding Dwight back, at least as far as ultimate success with the Lakers is concerned, is that he doesn't have his priorities straight. His impending free agency following the season has been highly publicized, and it's posing a problem for Howard when it comes to focusing on the present.

To an extent, this is understandable. After all, Howard's going to make a life-altering decision as part of free agency, and as such, he must perform his due diligence in making sure whatever destination he chooses is the correct one for his future.

At the same time, he shouldn't allow that to skew his actions during this season.

With the Lakers still sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference and three games out of the playoff picture, the time for urgency is now. That's especially true now that Pau Gasol has gone down with an injury that will cause him to miss an extended period of time.

Howard's already been sidelined with an injury of his own. But now that Gasol is out, the team really needs his presence in the lineup. That's caused Kobe Bryant and the Lakers organization to push Dwight to get back on the court.

We don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal," Kobe said in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. "We need some urgency.

"[Dwight] has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is.

"It's win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That's just how we [the Lakers] do it. And that's foreign to him.

If Dwight understands the sentiment, it sure isn't reflected in his words. Just check out his comments as relayed by the Los Angeles Times, and it's clear where his priorities lie.

He's not a doctor. I'm not a doctor. So that's his opinion," Howard said. "I mean, I want to play. But at the same time, this is my career, this is my future, this is my life. I can't leave that up to anybody else because nobody else is going to take care of me.

"If people are [ticked] off that I don't play, that I do play, whatever it may be, so what? This is my career. If I go down, then what? Everybody's life is going to go on. I don't want to have to have another summer where I'm rehabbing and, you know, trying to get healthy again. I want to come back and have another great year.

It's apparent from how Howard handled his departure from Orlando that managing his public perception isn't a strength of his. But if he wants to truly become a leader, then that has to change.

So much of being a leader is how you're perceived, so like it or not, Dwight has to learn how to say the right things, even if it doesn't necessarily jive with what he's feeling.

Nobody would fault him if he's simply too hurt to play right now. But saying things like, "this is my career, this is my future, this is my life," implies that he's only out for himself.

Heck, it doesn't even imply it; with the inclusion of "my" so prevalent throughout the quote, it outright says it. So, even if the reason for him not playing is legitimate, the perception is that he's not worried about getting back on the court.

Now, in fairness to Dwight, he did get back for a game against the Boston Celtics following those comments. And during the game, it was clear that his shoulder wasn't 100 percent.

In that respect, nobody can question Dwight's actions because he obviously sucked it up to get back on the floor. But his ability to give the right perception through his comments is clearly lacking.

Taking accountability for your actions is another quality prevalent among effective leaders. Because after all, how can you expect others to be accountable for themselves if you're not accountable for yourself? This is another area where Dwight is lacking that mostly manifests itself through his terrible free-throw shooting.

The game that most comes to mind was a December loss against the Houston Rockets, in which Howard missed eight free throws, including five in the fourth quarter. The Lakers ended up losing the game by two points, so surely Dwight making more free throws would have helped their cause.

Instead of taking some accountability for the situation following the game, Dwight deflected all criticism about his poor performance from the charity stripe potentially costing them the game. (h/t USA Today)

We allowed them to get back into the game. It wasn't just about free throws. ... It wasn't just about me missing free throws toward the end. We've got to do a better job defending.

That's fine. That's fine. People going to say what they're going to say. But at the end of the day, the reason we lost is not my free throws. That didn't lose us the game. Our defense was not there in the fourth quarter.

There's certainly some validity to Howard's claim about the defense being the cause for the loss, as the Lakers allowed 34 points in the fourth quarter. But there's also no denying that his free-throw shooting contributed greatly to the losing effort.

In that situation, a leader would at least admit to his shortcomings. He doesn't have to say it's the sole reason the team lost the game, but he should at least acknowledge it's a problem and something that he needs to work on.

If taking accountability for his actions is something he refuses to do, then he'll never be able to get on his teammates when they're out of line. Sure, he may have the talent to garner respect, but without leading by example, he lacks credibility.

Kobe Bryant can get on Dwight and his teammates for a lack of urgency, because nobody cares more about winning than Bryant. He can question Dwight's toughness because nobody plays through injuries like Kobe does.

Can you imagine if Kobe was the one banged up and Dwight tried to question his desire to get back on the court? How well would that go over?

Without truly knowing what's inside his heart, it's unfair to question Dwight's desire to lead a championship-caliber team. But he's obviously not going about it the right way.

He lacks the killer instinct that all great champions possess. And even if his actions suggest he's willing to sacrifice for the good of the team, his body language and words tell a different story.

It's not too late for Dwight to figure it out. At 27 years old, he's young enough to where it could just be an issue with his maturity.

Who knows? Maybe his problems are all related to his free agency; after all, nobody questioned his desire before everything began transpiring his last year in Orlando. Maybe he'll revert back to that player once he has his contract and long-term security.

But it's clear that if Howard truly cares about his legacy—and not just his pocketbook—then he'll need to start making some changes. All of the talent in the world only gets you so far.

What separates the stars from the legends isn't necessarily the talent they possess, but the ability to get the most out of themselves and their teammates.

Getting to that point is all about sacrifice—sacrificing for the good of the team, sacrificing your offseason to improve your game, sacrificing your time after practice to work on your free throws.

That's not a concession Howard has been willing to make so far, and until he does, he'll never be the inspiring leader or have the lasting legacy that's attainable for a player of his stature.

Follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso


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