Dwight Howard’s Last Chance “Spark Plug” Role In Los Angeles

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Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard’s days as a National Basketball Association superstar are over. Done, dead, and gone forever. Despite being gifted with incredible height, length, and athleticism, the Atlanta, Georgia native’s story is one well documented with highs and lows that range from a myriad of injuries to personality clashes with coaches, executives,  and other star players. After making stops with five different teams in the past five years, the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year is just trying to hang on to a turmoil-filled career, as a role player off the bench for the tradition-rich, Hollywood franchise.

It was only 15-years ago that Howard was drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic in 2004. Equipped with transcending talent, the big man was expected to anchor the team’s front-court for years to come. However, that “dream” seemed to peak during the 2009 NBA Finals. The team lost the series to a Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers team, and Howard was highly-critical of then-coach, Stan Van Gundy. By the end of the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season, the disgruntled franchise icon had demanded a trade, demanded his coach be fired and opted for surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back that caused him to miss the remainder of the season, as well as the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Now, the “journeyman” Dwight is embracing his role as a defensive stopper in his second stint with the Lakers. With a new focus on improving his health and being a good teammate, the eight-time NBA All-Star says, “I don’t think about my own success.” and according to CBS Sports adds, “The team is what is most important, and whatever I have to do to help this team win, I’m willing to do it. That’s what I try to bring every night: energy, good defense and I try to enjoy the game as much as possible.”

Despite his lack of regular statistical-success, Howard is priding himself on shot-blocking, rebounding, and being a defensive stalwart for the Lakers’ second unit. Despite averaging only 6.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in just over 21 minutes of action per game, the center has been excelling at what he’s always done best…blocking shots.

Right now, Dwight is swatting away 2.3 shots per contest. The performance ranks in the top ten of the NBA, and his performance is just one key-piece for a Lakers team that currently ranks second in defensive rating (97.9).

Prior to this season after signing with Los Angeles, legendary franchise Hall-of-Famer Shaquille O’Neal offered Howard advice by saying, “My message to the great Dwight Howard is, I know everybody’s counting you out. I know everybody’s messing with you. But if you dig deep down and play with that anger, and play with that ferocity, and stop kidding around…. Use LeBron and Kyle Kuzma, because you’ve actually got a good team.”

While O’Neal’s advice does come paired with slight criticism, the comments made to USA Today also correlate the similarities between Howard and the “Big Diesel”. 

At 34-years-old, the elder center was offered a chance to plug the middle for a contending Miami Heat team with a young Dwayne Wade. “In Miami, I was 34, same as Dwight. On my way out. People thought I was washed up when I left LA, but I dug deep down. I said ‘you know what? I can do this.’ If he does everything like he’s supposed to do – focus, no joking, no playing – just dig deep down and really, really want it, they could possibly win.”

O’Neal won a championship with the Heat and believes that if Howard stays focused, he is capable of winning one too. The Lakers roster is perhaps the best squad that he has been a member of, and he doesn’t have to carry the entire weight of a team like his earlier days playing with the Magic.

LeBron James, Anthony “The Brow” Davis, and a healing Kyle Kuzma are the expected top-three scoring options for Los Angeles this season. The expectations for Howard are high but don’t relate to individual success. His goals are loftier and relate to personal development and growth. 

Either way you shake it, this may be the last stop for Howard. In essence, his “second chance” with the Lakers is supposed to be a shot at redemption. It’s an opportunity to prove that he can play a role on a winning team, and contribute en route to an NBA title. In the early going this season, Dwight is displaying maturity and focus never before seen. Maybe, he has grown wiser and realizes that sooner-or-later opportunity will stop knocking on his door. 

According to The Athletic, Howard is working out after games and improved his diet. He says, “Back then I thought I’d be able to play forever, thought I could eat McDonald’s, chicken wings and honey buns every single day, but I realized as you get older, you’ve got to really take care of your body, you’ve got to listen to your body.”“So, my advice for anybody is try to eat as healthy as you can. Health is wealth. A lot of people try to get rich with money, but try to get rich with your body.”

Hopefully, the Lakers can get rich with Howard’s renewed mantra and focus. The team has gone “all in” chasing a ring for an-aging James and hungry Davis. Howard just wants to be happy and healthy. Together, they need him to continue being disruptive on the court, instead of off it as history would suggest. This is his chance to write his own ending to the highly-controversial story of his professional career.

“I’m happy for him because sometimes we don’t realize how much we love the game and miss the game until that window starts closing or its closed,” Bryant said. “Then you’re like, ‘Oh damn, I really miss playing the game. I want another opportunity to show what I can do.’ Sometimes you don’t know if that opportunity will ever come again. For him, I really believe he’s appreciative of the opportunity and I think he’s going to make a hell of an impact because of the new appreciation he has for playing the game.”

2019 – Kobe Bryant on Dwight Howard via Los Angeles Times