Dwight Howard hasn’t been the most popular man in Los Angeles this season. He’s failed to live up to expectations, and both he and the rest of the team have taken heat for it.
They just don't put the ball in the post. They'll use a screen-roll to get the guy in the post. But there's no consistent plan to do it. Yes, Kobe will go in there. But Dwight [Howard] just doesn't get any touches. They've basically eliminated his assets.
And when McCallum asked about his comparison to what Shaquille O’Neal could do in similar situations:
I think he can be. But he is not where he needs to be physically because of the back surgery. He needs a year to recover from something like that. He's starting to come around, but he has a massive upper body to carry around. He's a terrific athlete, but he still has to get all that back. He's looking better all the time, but his problem right now is turnovers. He's got to have a little better recognition, and that will help him gain the confidence of his teammates and coach, which he does not have now.
Jackson’s comments highlight the biggest issues Howard faces right now. The situation in Los Angeles was exactly what he wanted when he joined the team before the season; he wanted a team with a winning mentality and a desire to hang more championship banners in the rafters.
Kupchak has passionately denied any rumors and reports that the star center is being (or ever has been) shopped on the trade market. He’s been commenting on the matter for weeks, as he did in this interview with Steve Marcus of Newsday.com nearly three weeks ago:
We will not make a trade. We will not trade Dwight Howard. We have no intention of making a trade. It's unlikely that we'll make any trade with any of our principal players. To make another change at this time of the year being behind the eight-ball like we are, I think that would just make it more difficult. The talent is there. We have to find our way.
And again on Tuesday (as quoted by Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times):
It's unlikely that there will be an upgrade in the talent of this team. I just don't see how that's realistic. We'll continue to be on the phones and make calls, take calls and listen, but don't anticipate anything dramatic taking place in the next two days.
According to Pincus, Kupchak even went so far as to tell Howard directly that he wouldn’t be traded before the deadline.
The days before the NBA trade deadline are all about posturing. Whether Kupchak is sincere in his feeling about not trading Howard is irrelevant. What's relevant is how he has gotten to the point of fielding question after question about potentially trading one of the most dominant big men in the NBA.
To put this all in perspective, Los Angeles has a starting center who is averaging 16.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. His turnover average (3.0 per game) is the lowest it has been since the 2008-09 season, and, apart from some lingering injury issues and a poor attitude, he hasn’t had any problems on the court that would suggest he isn’t still one of the best centers in the game.
Howard got what he wanted when he landed in Los Angeles this offseason, but I’m not so sure he anticipated the amount of pressure he would be under to succeed right away. After all, he was coming off a major back surgery. Why should anyone expect him to average 23 and 15 every night?
Howard has been under intense scrutiny this season, especially from fans who are too accustomed to winning to be happy with a 25-29 record this deep into the season—and they shouldn’t be happy. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Howard is soft, either. Here is HoopsWorld’s Steve Kyler’s take on it:
Steve Kyler @stevekylerNBA
RT @loyal_laker: Do you think Dwight Howard is weak minded and immature? ---> No, not even close. I'd crumble under the pressure he's under2013-2-18 03:34:40
It’s hard to say that an athlete’s production and poor attitude are products of his environment, but that is at least partially the case with Howard in Los Angeles. He hasn’t met lofty expectations thus far, and the scrutiny has become a toxic element. Paired with substantial injuries and a losing record, Howard is up against it—whether it’s fair or not.
I’m not advocating a trade, and I’m not suggesting Howard should be given a free pass for his apparent lack of enthusiasm at times, but at least he openly recognizes what it means to be a Laker (via the team’s Twitter account):
Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers
Dwight Howard on what it means to play for the Lakers: "It means a lot. You see what this team actually stands for." #GoLakers2013-2-19 23:10:19
No one has to like what Howard has done in the Los Angeles jersey this season, but it’s at least important to understand the challenges he has faced thus far. Between injuries, instability at the head coaching position and expectations that are as high as any athlete can expect to shoulder, Howard hasn’t exactly been presented with a level playing field.
With the February 21 trade deadline approaching, Los Angeles has some tough decisions to make. The team has missed the playoffs just five times in its history, and doing so this season would invariably bring massive changes in the summer.
What Howard does in the final 28 games of the season may dictate his future in Los Angeles, and it looks like he’ll at least get an opportunity to try to prove he is the player everyone expected him to be this season.