I like Dwight.
There, I said it. He’s fun. He’s goofy. He smiles. He’s engaging. He talks to you in the locker room before games, about lots of stuff, when most “stars” are buried in their Beats or iPads or simply avoiding the 45-minute open locker room period as if it’s Matt Bonner coming for a bear hug.
And maybe those are all the things about Dwight Howard that so drive Kobe Bryant nuts.
But I like Dwight.
I’ve stood in line to dog pile him. Did it Sunday after his needlessly contradictory series-ending postgame media session. His ejection barely more than two minutes into the third quarter of the final game of the Lakers’ awful season earned him yet another Twitter-lashing from the greatest Laker of all, legend-turned-critical-analyst Magic Johnson.
Even before then I had ridiculed Howard for chronic indecisiveness, chided him for selfishness and criticized him for the overall insidiously poor manner in which he’s handled his contract business.
But dang it, I still like Dwight.
So I’m placing my faith in him now. I believe he will re-sign with L.A., giving him a five-year, $118-million exemption from further free-agent discussion and decisions that obviously fill his head with anxiety and self-consuming guilt.
“I just don’t want any pressure from anybody,” Howard told reporters Tuesday during the Lakers’ end-of-season interviews. “[General manager] Mitch [Kupchak] said he’s not going to pressure me. He’s going to let me make that decision and we’re in a good place.”
And that’s how I believe this ongoing drama, “The Dwightmare,” started: I doubt he ever listened to himself. Instead he allowed a thousand intervening voices promoting self-serving interests, whispering big market or endorsement deals or global reach or whatever else, to swirl in his noggin like piranhas in a fish bowl.
Just my opinion, but as the process slogged on, I don’t think Dwight ever fully embraced his own desires other than yearning to make everybody happy, of which only brought about the counter-result of being universally vilified, a la LeBron James after the Decision.
Through the self-inflicted surreal twists and turns of his final season with Orlando and his first unfathomably incongruous season with L.A., I believe Dwight lost connection to his own identity. What happened to the 23-year-old, fifth-year center who carried the Magic to the NBA Finals — one more than Chris Paul’s played in — and, like Superman, believed he was capable of leaping anything?
The process took a heavy psychological toll heaped on top of the later physical limitations of his back. With his image in tatters, fans everywhere turned on him. And now, after one failed season in Lakerland, home of champions Wilt and Kareem and Shaq, they’re saying good riddance to him.
By all accounts, including his own, Dwight could have sat out until December or even the All-Star break to properly rehab his surgically repaired back. But he wanted to play for his new team with championship aspirations on Day 1. Wisely or not, he did.
Yet when he didn’t possess his usual explosiveness, it wasn’t Dwight’s back that came into question, but his body language.
Then the labrum in his right shoulder tore in early January. He downplayed its severity at first and when he sat out a couple games to rest it he got crushed by every living legend now on TV telling him to play through the pain for the good of the team. Even Kobe offered such an opinion and later tried to retract it.
Of course, Dwight was already playing through pain, or at least discomfort. He underwent back surgery in late April 2012 and played on Halloween. Dwight had never missed more than three games in any season until his back last year forced him to miss 12. Steve Nash struggled with multiple injuries and played in just 50 games, but was spared the rip jobs. Chicago’s Derrick Rose hasn’t played all season.
“Knowing that I wasn’t in great shape, my body wasn’t all the way there yet, but I wanted to do whatever I could to help this team win,” Dwight said on March 5 before a game at Oklahoma City. “And you know, sometimes I have gotten beat up for it, but that’s fine. I took all those hits and I keep moving.”
And the hits keep coming. After Sunday’s Game 4, formidable L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke offered the opinion that the Lakers and Dwight — who still averaged 17.1 ppg, a league-best 12.4 rpg, and fifth-best 2.45 bpg — should agree to walk away. He wrote that Dwight had proven over the season and in particular that very game that he is not a leader, at least not one of Laker ilk, and not one worth the heavy financial commitment.
But remove the raw emotion from this disappointing season, the depths of which run far beyond Dwight, and think about this: Dwight will enter training camp in October with a strong back, a healthy shoulder and reinforced maturity. He will be of clear mind and conscious.
The 6-foot-11, 265-pounder is L.A.’s best hope for the days beyond Kobe. Basketball will again be Dwight’s driving force, the distractions of the last two seasons drowned in the Pacific. He will rediscover himself and reassert himself as the league’s most dominant big man in his upcoming 10th season, just as he turns 28, just as he enters the prime of his career.
Going out on a limb? What can I say, I like Dwight.