LOS ANGELES -- A bodyguard stood in front of Dwight Howard while he dressed Wednesday evening, as if the mere act of slipping on a Rockets uniform at Staples Center required physical protection. The bodyguard glanced right and left in the visiting locker room, like he was searching for an imminent threat. Reporters? Hecklers? Chris Kaman? Robert Sacre? After a few uneventful minutes, the security detail seemed to relax, and wander over to James Harden. There was no danger here.
Of course, Howard was booed during introductions, and again every time he touched the ball, standard fare for a free agent returning to a jilted locale. The Lakers may not acquire a first-round pick or significant salary-cap relief at this trading deadline, but at least they found somebody to blame. Howard's first road game against the Lakers provided an occasion to vent 15 months of frustration.
But this was not LeBron James back in Cleveland or even Carmelo Anthony in Denver. There was no relationship between city and star. Howard is simply symbolic of the Lakers' descent. He spent just one season in L.A., as part of a team that ranks among the most disappointing in pro sports history, and during that funeral march he saw Steve Nash break down, Kobe Bryant blow out his Achilles, and Pau Gasol aged about four years in one. Wednesday was a reminder that Howard's decision to leave, though controversial because of the club's glittery tradition, was really his only choice.
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The Rockets sit third in the Western Conference, have won eight games in a row and are flush with assets. They are deadline buyers. The Lakers sit tied for last in the West, have won five games since Christmas, and are devoid of assets. They are deadline sellers, with everything available at discount. They sent Steve Blake to Golden State on Wednesday, mainly as a money dump, and are still dangling Gasol to anyone with a pick and a willingness to swallow the rest of his $19 million contract. Gasol watched the Lakers and Rockets in a suit because of his nagging groin injury. He could be the next Hall of Fame-caliber big man ticketed out of town.
When Howard peered across at the opposing bench, he saw his alternate reality. If he were in L.A., the Lakers would be closer to the middle of the West, and they'd have a better chance to attract a premier free agent this summer. But they'd still be closer to a rebuild than a title run. "A lot of those guys are just fighting to stay in the league," Howard said.
Relieved or emboldened or both, Howard appeared understandably giddy that he wasn't wearing gold. He started the game by dropping in a six-foot hook over Kaman, spun past Kaman for a dunk, and then put back another dunk. He was so animated that he drew a technical foul yapping. In one sequence late in the second quarter, Howard dunked on three possessions in a row. He dunked off lobs, misses and pirouettes that must have been taught by Hakeem Olajuwon. He blocked a shot by Kaman in which he snagged the ball out of mid-air. The Lakers didn't play a video montage for Howard. It was recording in real time. He finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds, and sat for the fourth quarter of a 134-108 landslide. Howard is averaging 24 and 12 during this recent Rockets surge, proving himself all over again with a healthy back and a functional roster. He still laments playing for the Lakers before fully recovering from back surgery.
Eventually, the crowd turned its ire toward Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, seated at the game. Seven months and 36 losses dilute even the purest venom. The Lakers can blame Howard for the way he approached last season -- specifically his reluctance to run pick-and-roll with Nash -- but they can only second-guess themselves for failing to pre-empt his exit. At this time a year ago, Howard's discontent was obvious, and L.A. could have dealt him before it was too late. Instead, general manager Mitch Kupchak talked about building a statue in his honor outside of Staples. The front office deluded itself into believing a No. 7 seed would entice him to re-sign. "The Lakers always find a way to get back to the top," Howard said. "They will again one day."
The NBA surely did not consider, when they scheduled this pseudo homecoming on the eve of the trade deadline, how many painful memories it would conjure in the host city. The Rockets were supposed to trade for Gasol two years ago, planting Chris Paul with the Lakers, and clearing the way for a Paul-Howard partnership alongside Bryant. But Paul went to the Clippers, Howard to Houston and Gasol has never been the same. The line between contending and plummeting is as narrow as one David Stern missive.
Potential for solace arrived midway through the the second half, when Australian point guard Dante Exum strolled past the lower bowl and plopped into a third-row seat. Exum, the 6-foot-6 Loch Ness Monster of this June's draft, has been much hyped but rarely seen. Most Americans know only what they hear, that he is a fearless scorer who can create his own shot from almost anywhere, sort of like a guard from Lower Merion nearly two decades ago.
The Lakers don't know yet where they'll pick, and where Exum will land, but he may represent their best hope amid the devastation Dwight Howard left behind.