Howard, Lakers all smiles in camp as focus shifts to new-look team
Once a distraction, Dwight Howard is fitting in well so far with the new-look Lakers
Flanked by other stars and bright lights, Howard won't stand out as much in L.A.
If their chemistry is right, Howard and Co. could be an unstoppable force this year
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Dwight Howard left his new team's practice facility Wednesday in much the same way he had in the three weeks before: off the court that sits beneath all those retired jerseys of Lakers legends, past the friendly staffer at the front who's been predicting -- no, requesting -- between 65 and 70 wins this season and into the passenger seat of the black Escalade that awaited him just outside the door en route to Nash St. and the 405.
Another successful session at training camp was in the books, with Howard yet another step closer to his official return from April back surgery and the notion that these new-look Lakers will be nearly unstoppable seeming more real by the day. And Howard, who hoarded the NBA spotlight so mercilessly in the nine months that led to his mid-August trade from Orlando, continued a seamless transition that should have the rest of the league even more scared than before.
From the local Clippers squad that is a distant second-fiddle once again in Los Angeles to the other 28 teams that already had plenty to worry about with the Heat and Thunder, Lakers opponents needed this to go very differently. They needed Howard to take the diva route, to declare the Lakers his team and act as if he couldn't be comfortable in a place where he wasn't, well, center of attention.
But nothing of the sort has happened. Here in Laker Land -- where Kobe Bryant is known to come and go in cherry-red Ferraris and helicopters, Metta World Peace lives a double life as a stand-up comic and Steve Nash celebrated his arrival with locals by receiving a can of beer from a fan through the window of his speeding car on the freeway -- Howard's occasional penchant for preening isn't likely to stand out quite like it did in Orlando.
What's more, Howard -- the free-agent-to-be who so desperately wanted to usher in the new Nets era in Brooklyn before being dealt to L.A. -- is embracing this fortuitous twist of fate.
Like the rest of the basketball universe, sources close to him say they'd be shocked if Howard -- who can get a fifth year and an annual 7.5 percent raise with the Lakers as opposed to a four-year deal with 4.5 percent raises with any other team next summer -- doesn't sign a long-term deal with the Lakers in July. The drama, in other words, is over for now. And the dominance, most likely, is about to begin.
Howard, in case you forgot while tracking the endless twists and turns of his "Dwightmare," is the premier defensive player in the game and the sort of athlete that even sparks awe among his industry peers. The idea that he'll be, to an extent, a role player in the Lakers' system is where it gets unfair for their foes. This week has been a reminder of that reality, as Lakers players and coaches alike have been showering Howard with the sort of praise that is rarely seen at this level.
Lakers assistant and 13-year pro Chuck Person has been among that group, having worked with fellow assistant Darvin Ham and Howard recently, and he quickly came to the conclusion that the big man is more than capable of being remembered as one of the greats.
"I've been teammates with David Robinson, Tim Duncan, obviously Shaq was around, Jermaine O' Neal, and I worked with [former Lakers center Andrew] Bynum," Person told SI.com. "But I tell you, he has the best feet combined with explosiveness and power that I've ever seen. And I can say that with conviction.
"I'm totally shocked by how good his feet are. If you have a big man with feet as good as his, with the power, strength and quickness, you could potentially have a legendary post player."
The key, though, is that it hasn't been all about Howard. It's the Lakers Howard talks about in those daily skull sessions with the staff. Fair or not, this element was seriously in question when Howard's universe was overshadowing all else in Orlando.
"He came in as a selfless superstar, and asked us 'What do we need him to do?'" Person said of Howard, who is not yet cleared for five-on-five action but is hoping to debut for the Lakers in their final two preseason games. "He saw that we were here for him and always available. Any time you want to come work out or sit and talk, we're there.
"He understands that we're here for him and his teammates. To me, that was the beginning of a terrific marriage potentially."
Lakers coach Mike Brown has been equally ecstatic.
"He's powerful, he's quick, he's athletic, strong, takes up a lot of space," Brown said. "He's a guy who can get on the block and score against anybody because of all those different combinations. If he wanted to, he could attack somebody's body and shoot a jump hook that's a good look every time. He's not a guy who's going to be able to shoot a turnaround jump shot like a [Hakeem] Olajuwon, he's not going to need to shoot a skyhook like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he's not going to be a big like Dirk Nowitzki and step outside the three-point line and shoot a three, but what he's capable of doing on the block with his quickness and his speed and all that other stuff is almost unstoppable.
"Who he is and what he brings to the table, I think is good. He doesn't need to go way out of his box to be dominant. He doesn't need to do what Tim Duncan does in order to be dominant. He just needs to be himself."
Yet being himself was supposed to be a problem here. As his devilish dance with the Magic dragged on throughout this year, the player who was once branded as fun loving and more charitable in the community than most was suddenly seen as indecisive and egocentric. People questioned how his alleged act would jive with King Bryant. But it's clear, so far, that his personality is hardly a problem.
Lost in the media day headlines about Bryant declaring obvious ownership of the team was the fact that he laid out a clear succession plan for Howard, acknowledging that the incumbent's days are numbered and that the Lakers will be Howard's soon enough. From Bryant to Nash and all the rest, there has been nary a negative comment lobbed Howard's way.
"Dwight looks great," said Nash, who came to the Lakers via sign-and-trade from Phoenix on July 4. "He seems happy and comfortable. He's been all ears, listening and trying to pick up what he can. He's had a great attitude and seems like somebody who's thrilled to be here just like I am.
"He's been a pleasure to play with, whether it be in September or the first few days of camp. He's got a lot of energy, and he's definitely excited and giving energy, so it's great."
And, to this point, a great fit.
"I don't think just because I play with the Lakers means I have to walk around and not smile and have fun," Howard said. "I think Magic [Johnson] played with a smile on his face. But at the same time, you have a job to do. At the same time, I've been playing this game a long time, and I've been very successful the way I play.
"When you have fun, you win games and everything flows. We're not trying to bring back anything, relive or do something that another team did. We want to write our own history and do something for ourselves. That's what we're here for."