It's tough to think of players who've suited up for the Los Angeles Lakers at one point or another and have come to be reviled at some point thereafter.
The NBA's marquee franchise has been so successful for so long that just about everyone who's worn the purple and gold over the years has been party to either a championship campaign or some other fun and memorable season that would endear him to the team's legion of fans.
But rack your brain for long enough and you'll come up with a few names that'd make any Lakers fan's stomach churn. Smush Parker and Kwame Brown come to mind. Kermit Washington wasn't particularly popular after punching Rudy Tomjanovich in the face back in December 1977. Cedric Ceballos had his issues with in-season vacations, while Nick Van Exel had a way of grating on teammates and spectators alike.
Dwight Howard, though, takes the cake—and it's not even close.
No other Laker ever came saddled with such baggage. No other Laker was both the cause of a huge jump in expectations upon arrival and (partly) responsible for such a massive shortfall thereafter. No other Laker invited such criticism with his demeanor, both on and off the court. No other Laker ever embodied the disappointment of a lost season quite like Howard did in 2012-13.
And no other incumbent player of Howard's stature in the game had ever willfully spurned the Lakers to play elsewhere.
There was plenty of cause for concern when word first broke that the Lakers had acquired Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic as part of a four-team trade involving the Philadelphia 76ers and the Denver Nuggets. Howard was mere months removed from a serious back operation that'd short-circuited his 2011-12 season and left his status for the start of the 2012-13 campaign in doubt.
The trouble with Howard started well before that, though.
Fairly or unfairly, Howard had already built up a rap for goofing around, choking in the clutch, clashing with coaches and executives, and generally lacking any sense of how to handle his business in public. He'd also allegedly been on the other line of an infamous phone call with Kobe Bryant, wherein the Black Mamba was said to have told Howard that he'd have to wait his turn until taking over the operation in L.A.
And if that weren't enough, the Lakers didn't appear to be his first choice.
For months, Howard had espoused the virtues of joining the now-Brooklyn Nets in time for their move out of New Jersey. The Nets did their part, pursuing Howard aggressively at every step but were done in when Howard's reluctance to decline the option on his contract and Brooklyn's own need to retain Deron Williams by any means necessary left the two parties too far apart.
What did all these things have in common? They didn't bode well for his ability to assume a leadership role for the Lakers, amid the pressure and expectations that come with being a presumed perennial title contender. They certainly didn't set the sort of solid foundation upon which Howard and Bryant would attempt to forge a strong working relationship.
Things Fall Apart
Nonetheless, expectations were sky-high for the Lakers heading into the fall, as well they should've been.
After all, L.A. appeared to have massively upgraded the roster after nabbing the No. 3 seed in and advancing to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Lakers had replaced the perpetually injured Andrew Bynum with the best center in basketball, and Ramon Sessions with Steve Nash, a two-time MVP and surefire Hall of Famer.
That all fell apart in a heartbeat, though. Nash broke a bone in his leg during the second game of the season, Pau Gasol's knees were worn down from a long summer of international play, Howard's back wasn't quite right, and the roster as a whole just didn't seem to jell under Mike Brown.
Subsequently, the Lakers' leadership, including Jim Buss and ailing longtime owner Dr. Jerry Buss, axed Brown five games into the season and, in a move that remains unpopular to this day, chose Mike D'Antoni over Phil Jackson as Brown's replacement.
As Howard suggested during an interview with Alex Kennedy of Hoopsworld in July, he wasn't pleased with that particular decision:
If Phil Jackson had been more involved with the Lakers or coaching the team, would that have affected your decision?
DH: “Well, I asked to have him as my coach earlier in the year. (pause) The best decision for me was to do what’s best for Dwight. I think this is the best thing for me. This wasn’t a decision about anybody else. I didn’t have anybody pushing me to do anything. This is what Dwight wanted.”
His use of the third person aside, the emerging picture of Howard, a newcomer to the organization, trying to dictate the terms of his engagement with the Lakers isn't a pretty one. It's a theme that pops up time and again during Howard's 11-month saga in Los Angeles.
A saga during which, to Howard's credit, he did what he could to contribute to the team's on-court success.
The fact is, Howard wasn't even close to 100 percent recovered from his back operation when the season started. He pushed himself to come back quickly so as to make a strong impression on his teammates and Lakers fans. He's always been a people pleaser, and in trying to please another faction of humanity, he may well have only made things worse.
Not so much with the injury as with his own public image. Howard was plenty productive, pouring in 17 points and a league-leading 12 rebounds a night, but he clearly wasn't the same guy he'd been in Orlando. Whether his relatively subpar play was a matter of him not caring or his body being ill-prepared was a matter of some debate among the team's observers, one for which there was no satisfactory answer.
If Howard had come back too soon, it was his fault for not knowing his own body and/or for trying to make everyone else happy. If he was simply going through the motions every night, then...well, that's even worse.
But, again, to blame Howard entirely for his own struggles, much less those that befell the Lakers as a whole, is to oversimplify the situation. Here was a player, in Howard, who'd gone from the undisputed No. 1 option on an Orlando team built to his specifications to, at times, the second or third option on a new team in a new city, surrounded by new people and new circumstances.
Throw into the mix a shocking coaching change, injuries up and down the roster and a monumental transition within the organization in the wake of Dr. Buss' death, and it's no wonder the whole operation went to heck in a handbasket when and as quickly as it did.
Not that Howard's hands were entirely clean through all of this. There were the closed-door meetings, the sniping showdowns through the media and concerns about Howard's demeanor. Meanwhile, the Lakers defense kept getting sliced and diced by mediocre opponents, even with Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, manning the back line.
As if Howard didn't already seem a poor-enough fit, his mere presence created an unfortunate crunch in the middle with Gasol, a fan favorite and two-time champion in his own right.
Howard can't be blamed for Gasol missing a career-worst 33 games in 2012-13, though he was somewhat liable for Gasol's putrid play when healthy. Playing Howard down low, in a largely stationary position, forced Gasol to float farther and farther out to the perimeter, from whence he jacked up more long twos than any 7-footer of his skill should.
The shift sapped Gasol of his confidence and eventually led to D'Antoni bringing the sinewy Spaniard off the bench seven times during the season.
Surges and Thuds
It wasn't all bad, though. Howard's health and fitness improved as the season progressed, as did that of the team as a whole. Contrary to popular belief, D'Antoni didn't implement much of his famed spread pick-and-roll system, but rather relied on post-ups, isolations and even bits of the triangle offense to better accommodate his players.
In turn, the Lakers went 28-12 over their final 40 games to snag the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They might've made some noise, too, if not for a late rash of injuries that claimed Bryant, Nash, Steve Blake, Metta World Peace and Jodie Meeks.
Because, realistically, no team that's forced to start Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock at the guard spots is a good bet to beat anyone, much less the eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs.
Howard's first (and only) season as a Laker ended in a fit of frustration that came to symbolize the dysfunction of his stay. He was ejected from Game 4 of L.A.'s four-game, first-round sweep after picking up a second technical foul early in the third quarter.
Shortly after Howard left for the locker room, who else but Bryant, still on crutches after tearing his Achilles tendon, emerged from the tunnel and took a spot on the end of the Lakers bench. He was, of course, greeted warmly and loudly by the Staples Center faithful, even more so after watching Howard walk away.
No Way to Make Friends
It was a scene that was all too rife with symbolism for the Lakers and would come to characterize their attempt to retain Howard's services thereafter.
According to a recent report from NBA insider Ric Bucher, Howard wasn't keen to stay in L.A. unless the Lakers A) fired Mike D'Antoni and B) reduced Bryant's role within the organization, if not cut him entirely via the amnesty clause. At 27, Howard wasn't willing to wait another two or three years to become the "alpha" in Lakerland while the prime years of his basketball career wilted away. Said Jim Buss, via Ric Bucher:
Dwight didn't want to play with Kobe for 2-3 more years. I'm going to stand behind Kobe because of his history with the franchise.
As would most Lakers fans. It's all well and good that Howard is more than seven years Bryant's junior and, as such, would be an ideal choice, in terms of talent and age, to receive the proverbial torch from Bryant. It's also great that Howard excelled as a center, a position at which the Lakers have a long lineage of great players, from George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal.
But no Lakers fan in his or her right mind is going to willfully disown Bryant, not after all he's done for the franchise and not even if a torn Achilles ultimately spells the end of the Mamba's illustrious career.
Certainly, no long-time supporter of the franchise would abandon Bryant to make room for Howard, whose dramatic history and lack of a championship pedigree are more reminiscent of a daytime soap opera than they are of a Hollywood blockbuster.
And if ownership's sentiments are now along the lines of "good-bye and good riddance," then why shouldn't those of the fans be?
The feeling of rejection that followed Howard's decision was an unfamiliar one for the Lakers. Never had they encountered a situation in which a resident superstar left the team of his own free will and accord. Everyone and their mother could've predicted that he would land in Houston, but that doesn't absolve Howard of the disdain that was and will be due to hit him upon his first return trip to take on the Lakers.
Especially after the extent to which the organization embarrassed itself by putting up a series of billboards around town that implored him to #StayD12.
Gone but Not Forgotten
There is no other saga quite like Howard's to be found in Lakers lore. Never before had a player rolled through town and either exacted as much damage or been party to it like he had.
Kwame Brown stunk, but that was to be expected because, you know, he's Kwame Brown. Smush Parker only recently became a punching bag after Bryant initiated a brief war of words. As bad as Kermit Washington's punch was, it's not like he struck his own teammate or that those who knew him before and after he hit Rudy T. thought he was anything less than a good guy.
Even Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos have come to be remembered fondly by the Lakers faithful, as much for their actual on-court antics as for their virtual ones in NBA Jam.
What fond memories of Howard does L.A. have to cling to? Even his best game as a Laker—a 39-point, 16-rebound shellacking of the Magic in Orlando—comes with the caveat of 14 missed free throws out of a record-tying 39 attempts.
Instead, the Lakers and their fans will remember Howard's looks of disgust, his murky comments, his myriad behind-closed-doors conflicts that we have and haven't heard about, his perceived lack of appreciation for the franchise's history and tradition of excellence, his season-ending ejection and the way in which he reprised all the worst elements of the Shaq-Kobe feud...to name just a few.
The fact that Howard will be remembered at all in L.A. is what makes him the most reviled to don the purple and gold.
Where the others will likely recede into the vapors of the past as bit players whose offenses were about as impactful as their talents, Howard won't soon be forgotten as the Lakers' answer to The Music Man: a whimsical story about someone whose arrival promised a revival of sorts but who skipped town with a stack of cash and plenty of disappointment in his wake.
At least The Music Man had a happy ending. Then again, so, too, might this story for the Lakers if they play their cards right over the next year or two.
And if the Lakers' outlook does brighten up in light of Howard's departure, it'll only deepen his villainy in Lakers lore that much more.
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