Even though they offered him a non-guaranteed deal, the Los Angeles Lakers' decision to sign Dwight Howard this offseason was initially met with a lot of skepticism.
For good reason, too.
Talent has never been the question with Howard, not even at this stage of his career. He's only two seasons removed from averaging 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game as a member of the Charlotte Hornets, numbers only six other players in the league could match. Gone are the days of him being an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but he's still more than capable of making an impact in a more reduced role, even as a starter.
The problem for Howard is that he didn't appear to be willing to play in a more reduced role, where he wasn't the focal point of the offence.
Case in point: Howard averaged 6.4 post-up possessions in his one and only season with the Hornets, which was the third-highest rate in the league behind a pair of All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Embiid. Unlike them, Howard wasn't an effective post scorer, ranking in the 39th percentile with 0.83 points per possession. It didn't help that he was a turnover machine in those situations - he coughed the ball up on nearly a fifth of his post-up possessions.
That's a lot of touches for someone who wasn't an effective post scorer.
Howard averaged fewer post-ups last season with the Washington Wizards, but injuries limited him to only nine games. That played a big role in him signing the contract he did with the Lakers this offseason, as there were questions about his health and willingness to adapt to a smaller role.
The good news for the Lakers is that Howard has been a different player to start his second stint in Los Angeles. Whereas he was among the league leaders in post touches in 2017-18, Second Spectrum credits him with a total of four post-ups through seven games this season. For reference, that's the same amount as Bismack Biyombo, Luka Doncic and Malcolm Brogdon - none of whom are post-up players - to name a few.
Instead, Howard has been focused on attacking the glass and playing off of the team's stars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. According to Synergy, 36.1 percent of Howard's scoring has come off of putbacks, the result of him averaging 2.4 offensive rebounds per game. An additional 30.6 percent has come off of cuts. He's always been highly effective on those plays due to his size, strength and athleticism.
To put it simply, there's been a lot less of these awkward possessions in Los Angeles:
And a lot more of this:
The early returns speak for themselves. While he's averaging career-lows with 6.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in 21.7 minutes per game, he's shooting a Wilt Chamberlain-Esque 78.6 percent from the field. More importantly, the Lakers have been a far superior team with Howard on the court, outscoring opponents by a whopping 22.5 points per 100 possessions.
Not only has he been a difference-maker on offence, but Howard has also been a huge positive on defence. His 2.1 blocks per game are the most he's averaged since his first go-around with the Lakers in 2012-13 and opponents are only shooting 50.0 percent against him at the rim. He's also switching onto perimeter players in ways we have never really seen from him, showing that he's more than just a rim protector.
You don't want to get stranded on Dwight Island 🚫🏝🚫🏝- Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) November 6, 2019
(📺: @SpectrumSN) pic.twitter.com/DUNeeF54Bh
The question for Howard, of course, is whether or not he can sustain this for the entire season. It's one thing to be bought into what the Lakers are doing for the first month of the season. It's another to still be doing it in March or April when the Lakers are jockeying for playoff positioning or gearing up for a long postseason run.
But for now, Howard is doing and saying all the right things.
"I think every player's dream is to score 30 and stuff like that," Howard told Kyle Goon of the OC Register. "I've done that, I've had that. I feel it. But the one thing that's missing is a championship, and being part of something elite. What we have here is a championship-quality team. Elite players. Elite mindset. So I just have to do my job."
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