They say the NBA is a young man’s league, where the aging and declining get pushed out and replaced by teenagers who make considerably less money.
That isn’t the case in Los Angeles, where the Lakers have invested in older and more experienced players consumed with resuscitating their reputations and leaving the game with glory.
Such is the case for Dwight Howard, who was once the game’s premier center with an E-ZPass to the Naismith Hall of Fame. But the last six years have been disastrous for Howard’s reputation.
He forced the ill-fated trade to the Lakers six years ago from the Magic. Then there was another listless and disappointing stop in Houston. And then forgettable stints with the Hawks and Hornets. And finally, missing all but nine games last season with the Wizards with a gluteus injury. The Wizards dealt him to Memphis, where his contract was bought out.
In a league in which most of the general managers considered him a team cancer with a broken-down body and declining skills, Howard went looking for work.
The Lakers were seeking a backup center who would defend and rebound. They had enough scorers in LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma.
Howard agreed to all of the Lakers’ terms: play hard, become a leader, and don’t complain about minutes or touches.
So far Howard’s reemergence has been a rousing success. He has stayed healthy, been a defensive force, and blended into the team concept.
After a recent game, Howard was the final Laker out of the shower, carrying his Bluetooth with 1990s R&B mellowing a locker room filled with reporters. He’s reflective now, likely scarred by all the criticism he’s received in his career. Howard was a franchise-changing center until he wasn’t. Then his numbers became empty — he wasn’t a winner, he didn’t take the game seriously enough, he was a bad teammate.
He is the least heralded of the three No. 1 overall picks on the Lakers’ roster. James is one of the greatest ever, and Davis is one of the greatest now.
Howard will go to the Hall of Fame on career accomplishments — eight-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time All-Defensive team — but now he’s chasing a ring and trying to reclaim respect.
He’s averaging 6.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in just 20 minutes per game. His defensive rating is 99, meaning the Lakers allow 99 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor. In today’s high-scoring NBA, that’s outstanding.
Howard has seemingly ditched his happy-go-lucky demeanor, one that had league executives and teammates questioning his love for the game. He’ll be 34 on Dec. 8, a graybeard by NBA standards, but he talks as if he’s learned from his checkered past.
“We’ve all been in crazy situations as players so we have to understand we’ve got to stay poised and not allow an [opposing] team’s run to affect us and just play basketball,” he said. “We’re family. We treat each other with high respect. We love what each and every one of us bring to the table and we’ve only got one goal and one mission and that’s to win and we need each and every person in this locker room to win the championship.
“We’ve just all got to continue to believe and trust each other and that’s where great things begin.”
Howard’s Magic beat the Celtics in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals and beat the Cavaliers in the conference finals before losing to the Lakers in five games. That was supposed to be the beginning of a great run. But the Magic never reached the Finals again and Howard was out of Orlando three years later.
He is asked about the Magic’s Finals run. “I would say the thing that got us through is just belief,” he said. “We believed that every time we stepped on the floor we were going to beat every team we faced. We believed in each other. This team has that same approach and you have to continue to have that no matter what happens. The more you believe and the more you envision great things happening, you win.”
He won’t talk about anything but the team when asked about the Lakers, who added players such as Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley to help their resurgence. Howard teams with the maligned JaVale McGee at center. The Lakers have the league’s best record, seeking to prove the franchise is back.
“It’s easy to get complacent but we all know where that leads,” Howard said. “So, you’ve got to stay humble. We’re not playing for nothing but what’s in the rafters: championships.”
“So those are constant reminders of what we’re actually playing for. We’ve got to keep that in mind every time we step on the court.”
James was never a Howard adversary but they were competing for the same crown for years. LeBron needed nine years to win his first title. He eclipsed Howard as the game’s best player and now they are teammates.
“He’s strived to be one of the best players to ever play the game,” Howard said of James. “He’s making history night in and night out, I’m super proud of him. The hard work and dedication that he’s had since being in the league has paid off and gotta keep going. He’s never satisfied. He’s always working, so I’m happy for him.”
Howard wants to be known for what James already is, a champion. It would be a disappointing end to Howard’s career if he only reached one Finals. He revolutionized the center position defensively with his athleticism. He’s still a factor on defense, still has the hops and the strength. And the Lakers are giving him the perfect opportunity to prove that he has something left.
“We’re playing for something for ourselves and when we do that, good things tend to happen. Been doing it my whole life. I always said I’m a champion,” he said. “People have laughed at it and joked and said you don’t have any rings, but a championship starts in the mind. If you don’t believe that you’re a champion, you’re not going to act like one, you’re not going to think like one, and then you sure won’t ever be one.
“But every day I wake up and think about winning a championship and I know one day it’s going to happen. Until then, I’m going to still call myself a champion.”
Dinwiddie shines with a bigger role
The Celtics got a large dose of Spencer Dinwiddie on Friday when he scored 32 points in the Nets’ 112-107 win — as he continues to flourish in place of Kyrie Irving. Dinwiddie, a 2014 second-round pick, has been with the Nets since the rebuild and is emerging as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate — when Irving returns — and one of the league’s better stories.
Dinwiddie entered the draft after his junior season at Colorado despite tearing his ACL during the season. He was supremely confident in his draft interviews, although most teams were scared off because of the injury. He played in 46 games over two seasons with the Pistons before being waived by the Bulls after a trade. He was signed by the Nets three years ago.
The Nets were proactive in signing Dinwiddie to a three-year, $33 million extension during last season. He is now one of the better scoring guards in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s what he’s done since last year,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “He’s a talented player who keeps improving. I think he thrives in these situations where responsibility is thrust upon him and he steps up. I’ve not only seen that in games but in practice. When he’s on the second team, he loves that. He loves having the ball in his hands a lot.
“I’ll say the one thing about Spencer that isn’t talked about is that he plays both ends. That was the challenge for him — to be a guy that plays both ends and he’s really doing it.”
Dinwiddie is one of the league’s more unique personalities. He never stops talking on the floor to his teammates, officials or himself. But he embraces the challenge of keeping the Nets competitive with Irving out.
“The role is completely different so obviously, there is a change there. My approach to the game is very similar either way,” he said. “It’s whatever the team needs to win and then the role kind of dictates what that is. Sometimes it will be defense, sometimes it will be offense. [Friday] they wanted me to be really aggressive guarding Kemba [Walker] trying to deny him the ball and so that actually spurred a couple of the first buckets. It wasn’t even me having a particular offensive game plan or something like that.”
Dinwiddie has never been afraid to shoot or run an offense, but his efficiency has improved over the years. He is a shoot-first point guard with fearlessness and the ability to score in bunches. Against the Celtics, he scored 11 straight points in one stretch to give the Nets a 14-point lead, including two long 3-pointers. He entered the game a 28 percent shooter from the 3-point line.
“Just continuing to progress every year,” he said. “I actually haven’t shot the three better than I did to start last year, so that’s something that I’d like to do better. I was just trying to strike a balance tonight between passing and scoring and figure out my role as it continues to shift around when we get healthy and aren’t injured.”
After starting most of his first full season with the Nets, Dinwiddie adjusted to the bench role and averaged 16.8 points per game last season in just four starts. Atkinson said one benefit of Irving’s injury is Dinwiddie getting more time as a starter.
“I think this will make us better,” he said. “Kyrie’s going to be back and what is it going to look like? It can only make you stronger. I think that’s just the reality. Now your bench is stronger.”
Atkinson enjoys coaching Irving
Kyrie Irving signed with the Nets because Brooklyn was close to his New Jersey roots, and for a chance to play with buddy Kevin Durant. But the Nets had a lot to offer on the floor when Irving signed. They are an emerging franchise coming off a playoff appearance with a wealth of young talent after recovering from an ill-fated 2013 trade with the Celtics.
Irving has tried to blend into the team concept and Kenny Atkinson said the experience has been nothing but positive.
“It’s been exciting; I really have enjoyed it, I’ve enjoyed our relationship,” said the Nets coach. “We have great conversations. In terms of his work ethic, it’s 10 out of 10, how competitive he is. Not only games, he’s a competitive guy, but when he practices he doesn’t take plays off. He competes his tail off. Quite honestly, as great of a player as he is, he’s better than I thought.
“You don’t really know until you coach someone how good they are and he is an extremely talented and extremely competitive player that fits our style of play. I’ve been absolutely thrilled coaching him, can’t wait until he’s back in the lineup. I think we’ll obviously take another step forward.”
Atkinson was an assistant coach for the Knicks and Hawks before being hired by Brooklyn in 2016. He has coached the likes of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Tracy McGrady.
“Tracy was one of the more incredible talents I’ve been around and I saw how coach [Rick] Adelman [in Houston] collaborated with him, talked to him. I was around Carmelo [Anthony] obviously with the Knicks, and I saw how that works,” Atkinson said. “I think it’s a little different being in the head coach’s seat, but sitting back and observing how that all works is helping me already with how to coach a great talent like Kyrie.”
The Nets have emerged in the Eastern Conference by becoming a tough, gritty defensive team. Those terms aren’t associated with Irving on the defensive side. But Atkinson said Irving has been engaged on both sides of the ball. “He’s a heck of a competitor,” Atkinson said. “He avoids screens. He’s an acrobat, really, in terms of getting over pick-and-rolls and he understands the game at a high level, so his IQ is good and you’re competing like he does, and you have a good defender. When we played Boston [last season], I always said Kyrie gets after it. He’s a better defender than we all give him credit for.”
When asked to describe Durant, who will miss the season with a torn Achilles’, Atkinson said: “Authentic. If you give me one word [to say about Durant], I’d say authentic. Quiet but timely with his comments. I love that type of leadership.”
Irving has missed nine games with a shoulder impingement. The injury could be more serious than initially expected as he was going through another examination on Friday. Irving, who has said in the past he is not an 82-game-per-season-player, has missed almost half of the Nets games, pushing Brooklyn to the back half of the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Heat, Raptors, and Celtics have been the biggest surprises, while the Pacers are back winning after a slow start, putting the Nets in the group with the Magic, Wizards, and Hornets. The Nets are also waiting for the return of Caris LeVert (thumb injury) and Wilson Chandler (league suspension) over the next few weeks . . . For those who question why the Celtics can’t call up anyone besides Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters from G League Maine: The Celtics aren’t able to recall any players from the Red Claws not signed to NBA contracts, meaning they would have to sign any other player to a contract before they could be called up. The Celtics already have the maximum 17 players signed to NBA deals, including Waters and Fall . . . It has become a foregone conclusion that Memphis big man James Wiseman will be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft, but the emergence of Georgia forward Anthony Edwards, who scored 33 second-half points against Michigan State in the Maui Invitational, has potentially changed the landscape. There are four strong candidates for the first pick: Wiseman, Edwards, LaMelo Ball (Lonzo Ball’s younger brother), and North Carolina’s Cole Anthony. The Warriors (4-15) had the league’s worst record entering play Friday, followed by the Knicks and Hawks. The Warriors own their first-round pick and are expected to enter next season with a lottery pick along with a healthy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson . . . A player to watch this season is forward Brandon Ingram, who will garner All-Star consideration. Ingram is averaging 25.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.0 assists for the Pelicans. Because of his injury history, the Pelicans did not agree to a rookie contract extension, making him a restricted free agent after this season. The Pelicans will have to decide if they want to invest long term in Ingram, realizing players such as Lonzo Ball and eventually Zion Williamson will be eligible for the same long-term deals. Ingram is just 22 years old, years from reaching his prime.