The first time Dwight Howard joined the Lakers, he posed for a Sports Illustrated cover with Steve Nash. It was Howard’s first team in the NBA outside of the Magic, who had drafted him in 2004. The pair was supposed to buoy the latter stages of Kobe Bryant’s career to more NBA Finals glory.
The Howard-Nash combination didn’t work in LA. Howard signed with Houston that offseason, and since then he’s played for the Hawks, Hornets and Wizards. Howard is back with the Lakers in 2020, though, as a bench piece on a team led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis that has reached the NBA Finals. The NBA’s active leader in rebounds and blocks has found his niche.
After a few years where it looked like the final stages of Howard’s career would be filled with disappointment, his return to the Lakers has left the potential for a strong ending to his last chapter.
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Dwight Howard thrives as Orlando’s No. 1 pick
Howard entered the NBA out of high school, a 19-year old from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. He was the obvious No. 1 pick for the Magic, a player they hoped could be the next iteration of the youthful Shaquille O’Neal who’d provided the Magic such joy before he bolted for Los Angeles.
The young center was as advertised, and maybe then some. Howard averaged a double-double every year he played for the Magic (and for the first 14 years of his NBA career overall). Most years, there was no doubt who the best center in the NBA was — it was Howard, easily.
Between 2008 and 2013, Howard put together five straight seasons averaging two or more blocks per game. Howard’s swats were emphatic, like volleyball spikes into the third row of seats. His ability to slide over from the weak side and spoil what appeared to be wide open layups and dunks earned Howard three Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Howard gained notoriety for his dunking, as well, becoming a fan favorite at the annual Slam Dunk Contest. Embracing his “Superman” nickname brought on by his chiseled physique and freakish athleticism, Howard came out of a phone booth at the 2008 Slam Dunk Contest wearing a Superman shirt and cape. He proceeded to dunk from just inside the free-throw line.
The Magic and Howard reached the NBA Finals once, in 2009. They knocked off LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals before falling to Bryant and the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
With one year remaining on Howard’s contract heading into the 2012-13 season, the Magic sent Howard to the Lakers as part of a four-team trade.
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Struggles in Los Angeles, injuries and a journeyman
If you look at Howard’s stats, you wouldn’t say he struggled in LA or in his subsequent stop in Houston. He continued to average double-doubles and block a lot of shots — although his scoring dropped off a bit with more mouths to feed. But reports throughout Howard’s time with the Lakers suggested that he struggled with Bryant’s leadership style.
Howard went to the Rockets as they began to build around James Harden, and that’s when Howard’s high-flying play style began to catch up with him. He missed at least 10 games in all three of his Rockets seasons, including dealing with a right knee strain early in the 2014-15 season before playing through a torn MCL and meniscus during the postseason at the end of that year. Howard lasted one more year in Houston, but as the NBA turned to stretch-fours and even centers who could shoot, Howard’s defensive prowess on the interior mattered less and his lack of shooting ability mattered more.
In 2016-17, Howard played for a middling Hawks team that had a hole in the middle, but then he became a target for rebuilds. The Hornets were his best option in 2017-18, and then Howard went to the Wizards in 2018-19 but played only nine games. He underwent surgery on a gluteal injury and didn’t return the rest of the season.
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How the Lakers saved Dwight Howard’s career
Howard signed with the Lakers in late August of 2019. Los Angeles had already traded for Anthony Davis and re-signed JaVale McGee. It was obvious from the start that Howard wouldn’t be counted on for big minutes anymore. But for the first time in a few years, Howard would be on a real contender.
“For me, it was just like letting go of ego, pride, and just understanding that you can’t have that in order to live a really successful life,” Howard told reporters at Finals media day. “Just understanding that coming back to this team, I was going to give whatever I had to give up just to be the best player I can be for this team.”
Only twice did Howard start during the regular season, and he averaged a career-low 18.9 minutes per game. That resulted in averages of 7.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. But Howard has come up big at times in the postseason with a body seemingly healthier than it’s been in years.
Howard started Games 4 and 5 as the Lakers closed out the Nuggets, helping to slow down Nikola Jokic. He put up 12 points and 11 rebounds in Game 4 and followed that with nine and nine in Game 5. Most importantly for Howard at this point, he helped his team make it to the Finals.
“I think it’ll be one of the best feelings in the world,” Howard told reporters Tuesday. “I sit at home, sit in the room, and I walk around the bubble and I just think about how that feeling would be just to hold up that trophy. It brings me to tears every time I think about it. Every day since we been in the bubble it’s been like, man, this is a great opportunity. Take full advantage of it and stay in the moment.
“You know, even after we won the Western Conference finals I wanted to be like, all right, this is not the goal just to win with the Western Conference finals. The goal is the win the championship.”