Whether you’re talking about draft picks or free-agent signings, sometimes potential goes unrealized. Dwight Howard‘s first stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. While the big man looked like he could be Kobe Bryant’s new partner in crime, the move didn’t work out for anyone.
Since then, Howard almost crashed out of the NBA, before successfully returning to the Lakers this season. With the benefit of hindsight, team owner Jeanie Buss recently explained that she understands why the big man left town in the first place.
Dwight Howard’s initial road to the Los Angeles Lakers
During his time in high school, Dwight Howard established himself as a can’t miss prospect. His skills were so apparent that he skipped college entirely and entered directly into the 2004 NBA draft.
The Orland Magic snatched Howard up with the first overall pick, and the big man immediately made an impact. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting; the future would only get brighter as he continued to physically develop and adjust to the NBA game. Howard became a bonafide star, carrying Orlando to the NBA Finals and winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Below the surface, though, things were starting to sour.
During the 2011-12 season, Howard requested a trade; he said that if the Magic didn’t move him, he would leave town as a free agent in the offseason. While the big man had an apparent change of heart at the trade deadline, the damage had been done; during the summer, Orlando traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
What went wrong in with Mike D’Antoni?
On paper, having Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard working together seemed like a recipe for success. In reality, though the 2012 Los Angeles Lakers never truly clicked.
On the court, there were plenty of problems. Howard was recovering from back surgery and struggled for fitness; playing in Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo system only exacerbated the problems. The big man also failed to click with Kobe Bryant which, at the time, was a key criterion for fitting in with the Lakers.
Despite those issues, the team still offered Howard a max contract; he didn’t accept it, choosing to join the Houston Rockets in free agency. Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss recently revealed that she understands why he left Hollywood.
“I understand why he left,” Buss explained at a recent Lakers All-Access event. “We hired a coach [Mike D’Antoni] who didn’t respect his game and wasn’t going to put him in a position to succeed. A player, when they become a free agent, has every right to go to where they will feel the most productive. But what was important was we never burned the bridge.”
That bridge gave Dwight Howard a chance at redemption
While Buss’ take on events might not be 100% accurate—D’Antoni was far from the only one at fault—one part of her statement rings true. The Lakers never burnt their bridge with Dwight Howard, and the big man is redeeming himself in Hollywood this season.
This season, Howard has accepted a new role with the Lakers; after almost two decades in the league, he finally seems comfortable in his own skin. While the big man is no longer a focal point of the offense, he’s pitching in at both ends of the floor. He might not be stuffing the stat sheet, but he’s doing his job and helping the team win; even Shaquille O’Neal has taken notice.
Whether you blame Mike D’Antonio, Kobe Bryant, or Dwight Howard himself for the way the center’s first spell in Los Angeles, winning a title in Los Angeles would be quite the encore performance.