LOS ANGELES — There’s nothing normal about Dwight Howard’s second stint with the Lakers. The simple fact that Howard is wearing the purple and gold again is an odd sight, not to mention him ditching the No. 12 jersey he made famous in favor of No. 39. Then there’s the visual of Howard running pick-and-rolls with LeBron James, the same player he bested in a classic playoff series 10 years ago... when Dwight’s Magic would go on to face, uh, the Lakers in the Finals. Perhaps the oddest part of this all, however, is not watching a 33-year-old Howard try to resurrect his career in the same city that coincided with his fall from the game’s very elite. It’s watching Laker fans seemingly love every second of it.
When Howard left the floor during L.A.’s 120–101 win over the Hornets on Sunday, he left to a thunderous applause. The scene was a far cry from how Howard left the court in the last game of his first stint with the Lakers: Walking off after an ejection during the fourth game of a first-round sweep. Dwight left Los Angeles in 2013 and returned to constant booing and heckling in the years following—sometimes from Kobe Bryant himself!—until his stature in the game diminished so greatly that only the angriest of fans bothered to still go through the motions. During the Lakers’ two home games over the final weekend of October, though, Howard has slowly but surely started to change the narrative.
He was a sparkplug during L.A.’s first win of the season against the Jazz, with his activity on the offensive boards frustrating Utah’s bigs and creating second chances for the Lakers’ work-in-progress offense. Against Charlotte, Howard was a “star in his role” according to head coach Frank Vogel, collecting a double double with 16 points and 10 rebounds on a tidy 8-for-8 shooting, adding four blocks for good measure. After nearly every hustle play, Howard would feed off the energy of a welcoming crowd, like by gesturing for more noise, or after one particularly satisfying block of Cody Zeller in the fourth, taking a step toward the stands with a Mutombo-esque finger wave.
“I think myself and the fans have been through a lot together,” Howard said with a smile after Sunday’s game. “But just to be back here, man, it means a lot. I just take it all in, every second, every moment on the court. It's valuable. Hopefully the fans enjoy when we go out there and put everything on the line.”
Howard has been measured and understated in his early season comments. Like his previous stops in Atlanta, Charlotte, or Washington, Dwight is at least saying the things L.A.’s front office probably wants to hear him say after signing him to a non-guaranteed contract—how he’s a team-first guy willing to do his job because he has no ego. Unlike those previous destinations, Howard has—for now—committed to his role as a rim-running, energy big. He’s setting solid screens as opposed to hunting for post ups. He no longer has the athleticism that made him a perennial All-Star, but he still chases after nearly every rebound with reckless abandon. Ultimately, for a roster with questionable depth, Howard is eager to make the most of his minutes, which is significant for a team hoping to preserve its stars’ bodies for a deep playoff run.
“You’re excited for his story,” swingman Jared Dudley told Sports Illustrated before the win against Charlotte. “To be an All-NBA caliber player, for him to come back, hopefully help lead us to a championship, and serve a purpose in his role. Laker fans are a really smart fan base, they know he can really help us.”
The 34-year-old Dudley, currently on his seventh team since entering the league in 2007, is in some ways as surprised as anyone at the present-day constitution of the Lakers.
“I never thought I would be on a team with [Dwight], LeBron, and AD,” Dudley admitted. “For [Howard] to be as physically fit as he is, he may not be Orlando Dwight Howard, but he’s definitely good enough to be an NBA rotation player and help us win. People age and mature, sometimes your body declines, but now you have a chance at redemption.”
Howard and the Lakers still have a long way to go. It’s only three games into a high-pressure season, and adversity hasn’t hit this bunch yet. But after a tumultuous finish to last season (to say the least), L.A. could use a feel-good start to this one.
Or at least some less drama. After the Lakers’ first win of the weekend, LeBron was blasting tunes off an undisclosed playlist on his portable speaker in the locker room after the game, sharing what he described as “smooth, cool vibes” that Howard wanted him to turn up even louder. None of this—Howard and James as teammates, Howard back in Los Angeles, the Lakers enjoying relaxed vibes—quite feels like real life yet even when you’re watching it happen right in front of you. The Laker fans who cheered Howard off the court after his energetic bench stint in 2019 probably feel the same way.