Dwight Howard's first (and, perhaps, only) season with the Los Angeles Lakers came to an abrupt and all-too-fitting end during his team's 103-82 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of their 2013 NBA playoff series. With the Lakers trailing by 21 points with 9:51 left in the third quarter, Howard picked up his second technical foul of the evening—and was, by rule, ejected—for bickering at one of the officials.
For once, a Laker had been felled not by a spurious injury, as was so often the case in 2012-13, but rather by his own misgivings.
That image of a frustrated and DQ'd Dwight may well be the last anyone sees of him in purple and gold. Howard will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, at which point the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks (among others) are expected to compete with the Lakers for the services of a player whose career has been diverted somewhat by injuries and poor PR moves, but who was widely considered the best big man in basketball just over a year ago.
Now that Howard is in complete control of his own professional fate for the first time since he opted to jump straight from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy to the NBA, what will he do?
Will he re-up with L.A. and attempt to etch his name in Lakers lore alongside the likes of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal? Or will he seek to set down new roots elsewhere across the basketball landscape?
2012-13 by the Numbers
The dichotomy between perception and reality marred Howard's "audition" as a Laker.
Dwight was so often berated, by fans and pundits alike, for seeming aloof and dispassionate on the court. He didn't move or dominate to the extent or with the consistency that he once had, which, when combined with his burgeoning reputation for selfish and childish behavior, left him looking like an uncaring loaf.
Throw in the Lakers' miserable, season-long performance on the defensive end, and it's no wonder that Howard finished in 14th place, with nine ballot points, for Defensive Player of the Year. That marked his lowest finish and fewest points since 2006-07, when he wound up in a tie for 16th with six ballot points in his first foray into DPOY territory.
But while few would argue that Dwight actually deserved to win, there was reason for ballot nitpickers to believe that Howard's placement wasn't reflective of his actual impact. He led the league in rebounding, with 12.4 boards per game, for the fifth time in six years. He wound up fifth with 2.4 blocks. The Lakers, for all their defensive shortcomings, surrendered 6.1 fewer points per 100 possessions when Dwight was on the floor.
And if effort and commitment were ever in question, keep in mind that Howard missed just six games all year. This, despite returning early (perhaps too early) from major back surgery and tearing the labrum in his right shoulder during the campaign. As he told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports:
Coming back super early from a major surgery was tough, ... I tried to give everything I had and leave it on the floor. I was in pain for the whole season. I just wanted to try to play through it, fight through it. Even though I'm hurting, I'm still standing and I'm just going to keep fighting.
Say what you will about Dwight's mental fortitude (or lack thereof), but if there's anything he proved as a Laker, it's that he's not lacking in physical toughness.
Not that Dwight's game was without at least one massive hole. He shot 49.2 percent from the free-throw line, barely edging out his career-low mark of 49.1 percent from the 2011-12 season. In doing so, Howard missed 366 of his attempts. To put that in perspective:
- The San Antonio Spurs (360), Dallas Mavericks (346) and Orlando Magic (333) each missed fewer free throws as a team than did Howard on his own.
- The Golden State Warriors (366) missed as many free throws as Dwight, and the New Orleans Hornets (367) missed one more.
- Steve Nash has missed fewer free throws in his entire 17-year career (322) than Dwight did in 2012-13.
What They're Saying
Re-signing with the Lakers would seem to be a no-brainer for Dwight. They can offer him more money than anyone else, along with the cachet and location-based opportunities that come with playing in L.A.
Except, he's been noncommittal about staying since the moment he set foot in L.A. and hadn't exactly changed his tune after the Lakers' sweep-sealing loss to the Spurs (per Marc J. Spears):
"It's like a nightmare," Howard said after Los Angeles suffered a 103-82 defeat that swept it out of Round 1 of the playoffs. "It's like a bad dream and we couldn't wake up out of it. That's what it felt like.
"It seemed like nothing could go right, right from the start, injuries and all that stuff. We get an opportunity to get some rest for guys who are injured. A chance to rehab and think about what we can all do to better ourselves."
When asked if the last part of that statement reflected optimism toward returning, Howard said: "You're reading too much into it."
As for how he'll make his decision, Howard says he'll take some time away from the game to collect his thoughts before fully engaging the question of his future:
I'm going to step away from everything for a couple of weeks. I'm going to clear my head before I do or talk about anything as far as next season. I think I deserve that and that's what I'm going to do.
For those concerned that any lingering quarrels with Kobe Bryant could deter him from returning, Howard insists that he and the Mamba are on good terms:
We had a pretty good relationship before I got here. I think a lot of people have twisted a lot of things. The fake fights. Arguments we supposedly had. We've maintained a pretty good relationship. I want to continue to be there for him throughout the process he has to go through recovering from his Achilles.
A tumultuous year has done little to dampen Howard's prospects on the open market. He's still a 27-year-old physical specimen, and figures to enter the 2013-14 season in a condition much more reminiscent of his physical peak after resuming his proper training regimen during the offseason.
In a league where traditional centers are "dying off" faster than dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era, big men who sport the sort of speed, agility and athleticism that Howard does are an ever more precious commodity.
To be sure, Howard has fallen considerably over the last year or two. Where once he was a perennial Defensive Player of the Year favorite and first-team All-NBA performer (and the second-best/most valuable player behind LeBron James), Dwight now resides "merely" among the league's top-10-to-15 players.
Not that 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game are anything at which to turn up one's nose. But, seeing as how those numbers constitute his least productive outputs in six years, a significant reconsideration of Howard's relative standing among his peers is hardly without warrant.
That being said, Dwight won't have to dig between his couch cushions to find more money this summer. He'll be an unrestricted free agent when the market officially opens on July 1, at which point he'll have teams lining up to pay him upward of $20 million per season for his considerable services.
If money is truly on Dwight's mind, then it'd behoove him to stay in L.A. Crossover career opportunities aside, the Lakers can offer Howard a five-year deal worth approximately $117.9 million (per Marc J. Spears). The most anyone else can offer him is a pact of $87.6 million over four years. In essence, Howard would have to forfeit upward of $30 million to leave a plum job with the NBA's most glamorous franchise in the city where he resides during the offseason.
Projected 2013-14 Stat Line
20.4 PPG / 14.2 RPG / 1.5 APG / 2.5 BPG / 58.5 FG%
By his own lofty standards, Howard underperformed in 2012-13. Whatever the root cause of Dwight's decline—be it his bad back, his bum shoulder, his new surroundings, the tumult that engulfed the Lakers all season, or some combination therein—his overall productivity fell to its lowest level since 2006-07.
Ironically enough, he was swept out of the first round that year as well, while with the Orlando Magic.
Hypothetically speaking, Howard should be able to recapture a greater quotient of his former dominance in 2013-14 amidst improved health and a more comfortable setting, be it on account of familiarity (in L.A.) or fit (should he go elsewhere). It's reasonable to expect that he'll move about more freely, jump higher and quicker, challenge more shots and play with greater confidence in his own physical capacities once said capacities have been restored.
Wherever Dwight winds up, he figures to be a (if not the) focal point of his team's efforts on both ends of the floor. He'll get plenty of touches, both in post-ups and off the pick-and-roll, from which he can score and grab offensive rebounds, if need be.
This should be the case even if Howard stays put. After all, Kobe Bryant, as diligent and determined as he may be, could miss some time at the start of the 2013-14 season and won't likely be operating at full strength once he returns.
Don't be surprised, then, if Dwight puts up some gaudy numbers from the outset, especially if he ends up on a team that can space the floor for him with three-point shooting.
The Crystal Ball Says...
Dwight stays. As disastrous as this past season was for all involved, Howard would still be hard-pressed to find a situation anywhere else (and within fiscal reality) that better suits his aims, both on and off the court. He's long shown the sort of ambition for celebrity- and pop-culture appeal that L.A. regularly affords its most high-profile athletes, and if he wins with the Lakers, his legacy as the latest in a long line of superstar centers will certainly be cemented.
It's also hard to argue with an extra $30 million, though other teams will surely try. The Houston Rockets have a young superstar of their own (James Harden), an intriguing young nucleus and a head coach (Kevin McHale) who knows a thing or two about post play with which to entice Dwight.
The Atlanta Hawks are Howard's hometown team—not that he's ever shown much of an inclination toward playing there—and could be in line to retain Josh Smith, who happens to be one of Dwight's closest friends. The Dallas Mavericks won't have quite as much cap space on offer, though owner Mark Cuban can sell Howard on a partnership with Dirk Nowitzki and all the amenities with which he pampers his players.
Dwight's decision won't be an easy one, but once he's made the rounds and been lavished with the trappings of a cross-country recruitment, he figures to find the most appealing package waiting for him where he is right now.