While LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the faces of the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers, the most surprising contributor has been Dwight Howard. This resurgence comes just two months after it appeared he was falling out of the league
The Lakers signed Howard in late August after DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL. It was a surprise reunion for both player and club, as Howard left the Lakers in free agency in 2012 after one tumultuous season.
The signing marked Howard’s sixth team in four years — he was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Atlanta Hawks for the 2016-17 season, then to the Charlotte Hornets for 2017-18, then to the Brooklyn Nets, who bought him out immediately in 2018.
Howard signed with the Washington Wizards for 2018-19 but was limited to just nine games because of a back injury and subsequent back surgery. Howard was then traded to the Memphis Grizzlies this offseason in a salary-dump. He was promptly bought out again, leaving him on the free-agent market, where he didn’t seem to draw much interest until the Lakers gave him a tryout out of necessity.
A new, productive role
At the Lakers’ media day in late September, Howard, 33, told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, “I never thought in a million years that me and LeBron would be on the same team.”
Now the two aging stars are united, after a decade that saw their careers go in opposite directions. With the Lakers, Howard has assumed a different role than anyone could have imagined 11 years ago when he was competing with James for Eastern Conference titles — coming off the bench behind JaVale McGee.
In six games, Howard is averaging 6.2 points on 79% shooting, with 8.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 21 minutes per game. Extrapolated over 36 minutes per game, Howard is averaging a solid 11.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 3.9 blocks. Despite his age and injury history, he’s still capable of producing at a starter level.
The Lakers have out-scored opponents by 67 points in Howard’s 128 minutes on the floor. Howard’s plus-minus is the third-best mark in the league among players who have played 100 minutes or more this season, trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, perhaps the two best players in the NBA.
Howard isn’t the physical force he used to be, but he can still show surprising explosiveness around the basket.
Howard has been criticized throughout his career for his insistence on posting up and attempting to create his own offense.
Howard has changed that this year. While a larger percentage of Howard’s baskets have been unassisted this year than in previous years, it’s not because Howard is trying to score by himself. Many of those opportunities have come off of offensive rebounds and put-backs. According to tracking data from Second Spectrum, six of Howard’s 19 made field goals this season have been put-backs. Howard’s average time of possession is just 1.43 seconds per touch, tenth on the Lakers, despite being fifth on the team in touches per game, according to Second Spectrum. Howard’s offensive rebound percentage is 10th in the NBA among players playing at least 20 minutes per game.
In other words, Howard is doing the dirty work to get his, not demanding his own touches.
The same old defensive stalwart
At the time of this writing, the Lakers are the No. 1 defensive team in the NBA, allowing just 96.3 points per 100 possessions. With Howard on the floor, that number drops to an astounding 90.4.
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel told reporters after his team’s 103-96 win over the San Antonio Spurs that the defense is “probably ahead of where I thought we were going to be.”
Some of that can be chalked up to Howard playing against backups, but it’s not the sole reason.
Opponents are shooting just 37.7% on Howard this season, per Second Spectrum data, though defensive field goal percentages can be fluky because it can be difficult to tell who defends a shot and what might have led to a make or miss.
However, as Lakers Film Room detailed on YouTube, Howard has done a solid job mastering the Lakers’ defensive schemes.
Howard has done well corralling ball-handlers and keeping big men from getting behind him for easy shots, which is what the Lakers defensive scheme requires.
Howard has been able to inject energy into the second unit with some high-level defense, a big win for a team without many dominant perimeter defenders.
Is his productivity sustainable?
The signing of Howard was met with great skepticism from the NBA world. Howard has been physically limited, and a poor fit in his last three stops. Some were doubtful that the Lakers needed a player like Howard.
Chiney Ogwumike noted on ESPN’s “The Jump” that this Lakers team is an ideal fit for Howard in many ways. With James and Anthony Davis leading the team, Howard is no longer the top player on the roster and must acclimate to the team’s system. Howard is also playing on a non-guaranteed contract. In some ways, he’s playing for his basketball future. If he is released from this Lakers team early, it’s unclear if he’d sign another NBA contract.
So far, the Lakers have gotten the version of Howard that NBA observers have wanted to see from years — in essence, a high-end role player who does the hard work and blends into the team’s systems.
If the Lakers continue to get this version of Howard, they may have ended up with one of the NBA’s best bargains.