Dwight Howard has cleared waivers after his buyout from the Memphis Grizzlies and finalized his new deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. The team officially announced the move on Monday night. Howard will wear No. 39, becoming just the sixth player in NBA history to sport that number.
The move represents one of the more surprising returns in NBA history, as Howard became extremely unpopular with Lakers fans after he left the team to join the Houston Rockets in 2013. His lone season in Los Angeles came with enormous expectations, but ended with a first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
Now Howard will try to win back those same fans, but it will be no easy task. Here are the five most important things to know about this move for the Lakers.
1. The deal is non-guaranteed
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Lakers are not guaranteeing Howard’s contract. Not only does this force Howard to behave himself, but it gives the team critical flexibility. They have 14 players under guaranteed deals at the moment, meaning from a functional perspective that they have one roster spot left for the regular season.
That spot had been earmarked for Andre Iguodala, but once DeMarcus Cousins went down, it seemed certain that the Lakers would use it on a big man. They ultimately did by signing Howard, but with a non-guaranteed contract, they can release him with no financial repercussions if Iguodala unexpectedly becomes available before the season. If Howard proves himself at training camp and early in the season, they could look elsewhere for a roster spot in the event that Iguodala becomes available, but given the team’s general reluctance to waive players with guaranteed salaries, the structure of this deal at least provides a potential alternative while also protecting them in case Howard does not live up to their expectations.
2. Howard has played well when healthy
Howard played only nine games for the Washington Wizards last season due to injury, but he played very well for the Charlotte Hornets during the 2017-18 season. He averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game as a starter, but more importantly, he played 81 games. That doesn’t guarantee his health for this season, but Howard has typically been a fairly durable player. The Lakers are relying on him to stay healthy, and fortunately for them, Wojnarowski also reported that Howard has lost 25 pounds and his chronically injured back is healthy.
3. The Lakers are giving him a big role
That reliance is based on the construction of their current roster. The Lakers signed Cousins and JaVale McGee with the expectation that each would play approximately half of the available minutes at center. McGee played 22.3 minutes per game last year, while Cousins played 25.7, adding up to 48 minutes exactly. Without Cousins, the Lakers need to fill more than half of the game’s minutes at that position.
Pushing McGee isn’t really an option. He had not been a full-time starter since the 2011-12 season prior to joining the Lakers last summer, and his effectiveness tapers off significantly when he is asked to play more than 20-25 minutes per night. Anthony Davis will likely assume some of the workload at center, but he has said on numerous occasions that he prefers power forward. The Lakers have respected that, and with Davis’ contract set to expire after the season, they may need to continue to do so in order to ensure an extension. That means that Howard is being signed to play a real role. He is not going to be the 15th man on the bench. He will be a real contributor for this team.
4. Howard claims he has put his Lakers past behind him
Howard and Kobe Bryant did not exactly get along as teammates during the 2012-13 season. Despite Bryant’s retirement, his approval is still meaningful in Los Angeles. Aside from the reverence fans still hold for him, his former agent, Rob Pelinka, is now the team’s general manager. Bryant once called Howard soft during a game, and has not spoken positively about their experience together since.
But in an interview with Kristine Leahy of Fox Sports 1 earlier in the offseason, Howard actually thanked Bryant for saying that to him.
There are naturally going to be fans who are upset about the move after everything that happened the last time he was in Los Angeles, but according to Wojnarowski, “there was sense Howard realized he hit ‘rock bottom’ and had been humbled.” If that is true, there is no reason to believe that Howard can’t help this team.
5. Howard is a footnote in LeBron James‘ history
LeBron James has worked hard to surround himself with the best possible talent during his NBA career, but even so, he has encountered a stunning number of No. 1 overall picks throughout his career. Howard will be the eighth to play with James in the NBA.
Those players, in order of when they were drafted, are Shaquille O’Neal (1992), Joe Smith (1995), Howard (2004), Andrew Bogut (2005), Greg Oden (2007), Derrick Rose (2008), Kyrie Irving (2011) and Anthony Davis (2012). Of those players, only Davis and Irving were in their primes. The rest joined James in their 30’s or after significant injuries. It is an impressive collection of names, but in terms of actual talent, all it proves is that big-name players gravitate towards James in their final years.