Very little has gone right for Dwight Howard in his first season with the Lakers.
A 10-month old back surgery and aggravated labrum in his right shoulder has limited Howard’s explosiveness, timing and energy level. A reduced offensive role has often left Howard frustrated. It also doesn’t help the Lakers (25-29) enter tonight’s game against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center with a 10th place standing in the Western Conference.
Regardless, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak still considers Howard the cornerstone of the franchise.
“Dwight is our future,” Kupchak told “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” on ESPN Radio on Wednesday. “Kobe [Bryant] has one more year on his deal [this year, plus one]. That’s all I can bank on or this organization can bank on. I have no idea if he wants to continue to play beyond next year. As of now, we’re looking at a two-year window, [and that] plays to the urgency of the situation and how we build the team. … This team’s window to win is this year and next year.”
Does Howard see his future here too?
“I do,” he said. “We talked about it plenty of times.”
Kupchak remained adamant the Lakers won’t deal Howard before the NBA’s trade deadline ending Thursday at noon PST.
“It’s hard to get talent in this league and to have a talent like Dwight Howard, we have no intention of trading Dwight Howard,” Kupchak said. “He belongs to have his name on the wall [as a retired uniform] and a statue in front of Staples [Center] at some point and time.”
What does Howard think about that?
“That’s what we’ve always talked about since the first day I got here,” he said. “It hasn’t stopped. The goal hasn’t changed and it won’t change.”
Sounds simple enough. For the first time this season, Howard suggested he’s coming back to the Lakers this offseason.
Not so fast. Moments later, Howard instantly backtracked.
“The only thing that matters is right now,” Howard said. “Nobody can control what happens this offseason. But like I said it to you guys before, it’s not something I need to talk about every day. There’s no need for me to make a decision. Right now, it’s where I want to be in the future. My goal hasn’t changed. I want to win a championship and want to win one here. I’m here right now and this is our chance to get one this season. It’s been tough. But we have an opportunity to change all that.”
Howard actually can control what happens this offseason.
He will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. He could re-sign for five years and $117.9 million instead of a four-year, $87.6 million deal with another team. Bolting for the Lakers wouldn’t just represent a drop in earnings. It would mark the second departure in consecutive seasons after his hasty exit from the Orlando Magic.
Kupchak points to one thing that will cure all that.
“Players in this league are not going to get their due until they win a championship and until they do, they’re under the microscope and they’re going to be criticized for every single little thing,” Kupchak said. “We’ve seen that with what’s taken place in Miami in the last year or two. LeBron [James] is playing at a ridiculously high level right now, but for several years he was criticized for everything he did. When he won a championship, everything changed. That’s just the way it’s going to be. With Dwight, when he wins his first championship — and he will — people will look at him differently.”
Howard says he understands that.
“I’ve never been a bad person or what I’m being portrayed right now,” he said. “I won’t allow that to change who I am and put me in a shell. I’m not going to let it defeat me who I am as a person. I’ve always been the same person, fun loving. I don’t have a bad bone in my body. I’m not going to allow stuff that’s being said or go around affect who I am. I totally understand the situation. But when you’re down and out, people want to step on you. I will not let that defeat me or this team or what we’re trying to accomplish as a team. We’ll do more and be more active to really help this team. It starts with practice. It might not show tonight or next week, but if I continue to work at it and strengthen my body, the better.”
That’s why Howard refused to go along with Phil Jackson’s contention to Sports Illustrated that the Lakers aren’t using Howard’s assets correctly. That’s also why Howard spent part of All-Star weekend working with the Lakers’ trainers to improve his conditioning.
“I can do more for this team and I can do more and it starts with me,” said Howard, who’s averaged 16.3 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, his lowest marks since the 2005-06 season. “The biggest thing for me I’m working on a daily basis is trying to get into better shape so I can do more. It is tough coming off one major injury. I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. It is tough. It’s not as easy as I expected it to be. But I did come back early, doing the best I can. I’l continue to give more. The more I get in shape, the more comfortable I get on the court, the better I will be on this team. I want to win. I’ll do whatever I can to get my body, mind and spirit in the right place.”
Howard’s latest journey reminds him of a similar path the Lakers’ other great centers took. Wilt Chamberlain’s lone championship in 1972 came in his fourth season with the Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won an NBA title in 1971 with the Milwaukee Bucks. But the first of five NBA championships didn’t happen until 1980, his fifth season with the Lakers. That also coincided with Magic Johnson’s arrival. Shaquille O’Neal won three consecutive titles with the Lakers (2000-2002) after falling short in his first three seasons, including the 1997 Western Conference semifinals (lost to Utah 4-1), 1998 Western Conference Finals (lost to Utah 4-0) and 1999 Western Conference semifinals (lost to San Antonio 4-0).
“All those guys who played here that were great centers, they had years where it wasn’t so good,” Howard said. “The only thing that cured it was winning. Once those guys started winning, everything changed. You look at Wilt when he was here. You could say a lot of things about him until he won. Once he did that, everything changed. Same thing with Shaq, their first three or four years they didn’t win. They were getting beat up for it. Once they won, everything changed. You can’t really look at the negative things. All of those things will bring you down. You have to realize the positives. Right now, for me, I understand once I get healthy, then I’ll be a much better player than I am today. I see that as a positive in knowing that I’ll get back to where I need to be.”
For now, Howard vows he will handle the pressure cooker properly surrounding the Lakers.
“Everybody wants to win,” he said. “That’s basically it. You want to win. If you don’t win. Everybody is not in a good place. I totally understand that. It’s not just the culture of the organization. It’s being in LA and the spotlight is always on. I totally understand that. I knew what I was getting into when I got here. This is a great learning experience for me. This has made me a better person and better man. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow.With everything that’s been going on, I haven’t allowed it to take away some of the passion that I have for the game and for fans and for anything. For some guys and some people when they have situations like this, they might ball up and get into a shell. That;’s not who I am. I’m not going to allow that to take away from the person I am. I understand I want to get criticized for everything. That’s fine. But at the same time, I’m not going to allow whatever is being said to change who I am as a person.”
That includes Howard refusing to make his future intentions clear about the Lakers.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org