Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers has not lived up to the hype to this point, and he must accept and excel at his defensive responsibilities if the Lakers want to make a run this season.
First of all, Phil Jackson is not coming back. Even if the Lakers were to offer him this team right now, why would he want to take over a team that is not likely going to the playoffs?
Also, the Lakers are still paying off Mike Brown’s contract, and Mike D’Antoni’s contract is not about to join Brown’s contract in the free money category. D’Antoni has already proved that he was not the best choice for this team, but he has also proved that Brown was not completely at fault for the Lakers’ slow start.
More than halfway through the season, the Lakers are still a collection of individuals rather than a team of stars.
"We've got an All-Star team out there," D'Antoni said before the Wednesday’s loss to Memphis. "Have you ever watched an All-Star Game? It's God-awful because everybody gets the ball, they go one-on-one and then they play no defense. That's our team. That's us. We're an All-Star team and we haven't learned there's a pecking order. There's the one guy, the two guy, the three guy and the four guy. It might not be the same guy every night, but somebody has got to accept being the fourth guy. If you've been the first guy all your life, that's hard to accept. That's what happens in All-Star (Games) and that's what happened with us."
Although D’Antoni has drawn criticism from the fan base for his handling of Pau Gasol, D’Antoni’s move to place Gasol on the bench was presumably designed to help the team identify roles as much as it was designed to create space for Dwight Howard.
Gasol would be the ace for the second unit. Gasol would not be happy in his role, but he would accept it and leave his pouting off the floor. In the past, Gasol was the No. 2 player on the team behind Kobe Bryant, and the last couple of seasons, he even slipped to No. 3 behind Andrew Bynum.
Moving Gasol to the second unit would also give the Lakers a certified source of offense for the second unit and give Gasol time to operate in the low post, his preferred habitat.
Without a doubt, the Lakers are still Kobe Bryant’s team.
After Wednesday’s team meeting, Bryant came out shooting and took twice as many shots as any other Laker in the first quarter against Memphis. That aggression and attacking display exemplified what Bryant took out of the meeting: Kobe is still the No. 1 option.
If the Lakers continue to fail and crumble, Bryant will take the bruise and blemish on his career, deservedly or not.
Steve Nash has already accepted his role as creator and has opted to focus on passing rather than shooting. Nash has been a step slower since returning from his injury layoff, but he was still good enough to average 15 points, shoot 55 percent from the field, and dish out eight assists per game during the Texas back-to-back road trip when Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard were both unavailable.
Nash can still score, but he chooses to accommodate his teammates in an attempt to build a team. In other words, Nash has a role, and he accepts it.
There is a giant elephant in the room, and it is the problem everyone from management down to the coaches is afraid to address.
What is Howard’s role with this team? Is he meant to be a defensive stopper? Is he meant to be the No. 1 offensive option? The No. 2 option? The No. 3 option? Is he meant to play alongside Gasol at the end of games? What is his role, exactly?
Dwight Howard’s ability to leave at the end of the season is the reason this team is not defined.
Howard cannot be told what to do because he can leave at the end of the season, and no one dares to upset him before he makes his decision. For management and the coaches, keeping Howard with the Lakers has become paramount. At this point, making the playoffs is only a goal because it would help keep Howard with the team.
When the goal of management and the coach is to stroke the ego of one player who is half-injured and half-underperforming, there is a major problem with team chemistry. With Howard refusing to shore up his future, the problem is here to stay.
“[Howard] has rudimentary offensive skills," former coach and current television analyst Jeff Van Gundy said Wednesday on ESPN radio. "He's not a good ball handler. He doesn't have a really well-defined low-post game - a poor free-throw shooter. But he can have a huge impact on the game defensively - rebounding, screening, rolling, the occasional post move because he's so athletic - but he doesn't want to do it that way.”
On Wednesday, D’Antoni held a team meeting to open the dialogue. Following the meeting, Howard spoke like he was willing to accept his defensive role and not focus on the offensive end. However, that new attitude did not properly translate to the game, as the Lakers lost 106-93.
Howard simply is not the same defensive force he was prior to back surgery. Whether or not he ever returns to that level is the $100 million question. More than halfway into the season, Howard has failed to display an ability to fill the defensive role the Lakers desperately need.