Eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard will reportedly play for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019-20, the fifth straight season in which he has changed teams. Howard, 33, agreed to a buyout with the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday; when he clears waivers, the Lakers will sign him to a non-guaranteed minimum contract.
To say that Howard has fallen from grace would be a massive understatement. Like the Brooklyn Nets last summer, the Grizzlies acquired Howard in July as a money-saving maneuver, with no interest in bringing him to training camp. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Howard met with the Lakers several times and told them he had hit rock bottom, promising not to live up to his reputation as a difficult teammate who disrupts locker rooms.
“I know it’s a narrative,” Howard said (in 2018). “I know it’s a story. And I know it was someone else’s opinion that started it. And then it’s just something that kept going.”
This marks a return to Los Angeles, where he spent one tumultuous season. He came back from back surgery too early in 2012-13, playing through pain for a team that never jelled. Those Lakers were supposed to be a “superteam,” and Howard was supposed to be the franchise’s next great center, but they were swept in the first round and Howard left for the Houston Rockets in free agency.
“I lost confidence in who I am as a player,” Howard said (in 2017). “I’d hear people say, ‘You should play more like Shaq,’ so I tried to bully guys. But that didn’t work because I’m not as big as Shaq. Then I’d hear people say, ‘You smile too much, you should be more like Kobe,’ so I tried to put on a mean face and play mad. But I wound up getting all these stupid techs and flagrant fouls.”
This time, he and the Lakers hope their partnership will be different. They have a hole at center because DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL and Anthony Davis sees himself as a power forward. Howard saw an opportunity to win a title, and did everything he could to convince the Lakers he is serious about playing a complementary role, showing up at their practice facility a day before his formal workout for an informal one and speaking emotionally about his new mindset, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
“I changed up everything around me,” Howard said (in 2016). “I hold myself more accountable in certain situations. I try to be a better man, a better father, a better teammate. I know a lot of the stuff that’s been said about me that I can’t really control and has been false, but at the same time, I just want to show this city who I really am and show my teammates what kind of teammate I am.”
Howard continued (in 2016): “Stuff will change. I’m on a great team, got a lot of great guys in this locker room, great coaching staff and they’re going to hold me accountable for everything. It’s something I want to have. I want to be held accountable. I want my teammates and my coaches to push me to be the best that I can be.”
Last season, Howard played in only nine games for the Washington Wizards. He needed spinal surgery in November and hurt his hamstring during his rehabilitation. In recent years, he has not been the high-flier he once was, nor has he been able to run the court the way he used to. The Lakers do not, however, need him to be his old, dominant self. They just need him to move well enough to play competent pick-and-roll defense and protect the paint. His durability is a question mark, but he has lost 25 pounds and the Lakers believe that his back is healthy, according to ESPN.
“I want to make sure my body is right,” Howard said (in his famous “Inside the NBA” interview during the 2016 playoffs). “I want to change that perception that I don’t really take this game serious. Because this is my life. I’ve been doing it since I was three years old. And I want to win. That’s why I play this game. And I don’t want to finish my career and not be up on that podium.”
Once an MVP candidate, Howard has a history of sulking when he doesn’t feel involved enough on offense. On a 2017 podcast, ESPN’s Zach Lowe said that Hawks players were “screaming with jubilation into their phones” when they learned Atlanta had traded him because “Dwight would give these speeches before the game about how everyone is playing hard, we want unity and then go out and play like a blah game where he demands post touches and doesn’t rotate as hard as he could. And everyone is like, ‘Well, why are you speaking in the locker room?'” On two occasions, Howard has said he wants to expand his game by adding a 3-point shot to his arsenal. Now, however, he has been humbled, and he understands that must play a smaller role in service of team success, according to The Athletic.
“To be honest, it has been a little tough,” Howard said (in 2015). “I sat back and analyzed everything, and [Hall of Fame Rockets center] Elvin Hayes called me one day. He said, ‘For this team to win, you really have to make that ultimate sacrifice.’ I didn’t quite get it at first, but I think I really understand it now better than before.
“It’s not like I haven’t done it in the past, but this year is a little different. That sacrifice for me is going to come on the offensive end. It’s the thing I saw Wilt [Chamberlain] do when he got his championship with the Lakers [in 1972]. Wilt was known for scoring a lot of points, and when he played for that team that won the championship, he got other people open shots, did whatever he could to make everybody better. He got that trophy.”