Dwight Howard just pushed the reset button again.
He did it last season when, amid the melodrama and speculation about his future whereabouts beyond Orlando, he abruptly excised the opt-out clause from his contract and – seemingly, for a few minutes – recommitted to the Magic. Which meant, ultimately, that he needed to be traded away from central Florida over the summer rather than walking away free and clear.
Now Howard is putting toothpaste back into the tube again or, at least, trying to ration what precious little remains.
The Los Angeles Lakers have 19 games remaining in the regular season, starting with their Sunday matinee against Chicago. And now, finally, apparently better late than never, they have Howard fully present and ready for further duty. Howard said Saturday after the Lakers’ practice that he recommitted himself to the team and its goals during some heavy introspection at All-Star Weekend in Houston. Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com, after quoting Howard (“I just told myself, ‘I’m going to commit myself to being better for the second half of the season’ “), noted:
That meant cutting sugar completely out of his diet so he could get into the kind of shape he needed to be in to be the Lakers’ defensive anchor and run coach Mike D’Antoni‘s pick-and-roll sets.
That meant acknowledging that he was trying to be somebody he wasn’t the first half of the season.
And, yes, it meant admitting to himself that playing alongside the hard-driving Kobe Bryant was something that he needed both personally and professionally.
“It’s going to make me a better man and a better player from watching Kobe,” Howard said.
The big man acknowledged in the interview session that he got dwarfed by the championship-level expectations that are a constant for the Lakers (and a vast departure from the happy-if-they-can-last-three-rounds attitude around Orlando). He also talked about a bunch of stuff related to his extrovert ways and goofing-off personality that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans to one Kobe Bean Bryant.
Since All-Star Weekend, Howard had averaged 15.4 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in nine games. He also was drawing praise from D’Antoni for the sort of stuff that used to be routine for him in his first eight seasons.
“He jumped three or four times after one ball,” D’Antoni said of Howard’s defensive performance Friday night, when he blocked five shots and intimidated several Raptors. “His conditioning didn’t allow him to do that [before].
“I think he was harshly judged because he wasn’t 100 percent. There’s all kind of little factors, but the further away he gets away from the [back] operation, the better he will be.”
Howard’s timing certainly could have been better. Opening Night generally is the marker at which players, coaches and most everyone else in the league aim when committing to the long grind of the NBA season. In Howard’s case, the first game in which he truly felt healed from his offseason back surgery would have sufficed.
The All-Star break? OK, it’s a logical time for renewal, what with four or five days between games and either a refreshing getaway (for non-Stars) or constant reflection-through-media-inquisition (for the biggest Stars) filling the void. It’s just a little late for someone on whom a proud franchise and a market accustomed to consistent greatness is banking.
Then again, the Lakers began the day Sunday tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, with a realistic shot of moving up to as high as sixth (to avoid Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the first round) .So it’s not too late mathematically for a recommitted Howard to get busy.
And let’s face it, is it ever too late in the NBA for a 7-footer with immense strength and laudable skills to take his team, his game, his opportunities and himself seriously? Have the multiple chances accorded to the likes of Andrew Bynum, Greg Oden, Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi and a dozen others, including Howard himself, taught us nothing?
Point guards and small forwards might run out of chances but in the NBA, big men of even modest proficiency tend to run out only of years or cartilage. Recommit at will, Dwight. Someone will be waiting.