Below is a Q&A with ESPN NBA analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy on Dwight Howard’s pending free agency:
What’s your outlook on Dwight Howard’s future with the Lakers?
Van Gundy: I like Mitch Kupchak’s stance. More general managers who say they’re not going to participate in a sign-and-trade really put the player in a box. Howard has a lot of money. So it’s not like he can’t make up the $30 or so million more that he could get. But it could give the players pause, particularly with what these teams get with low first-round picks. They don’t get much for these star players. I really like the stance that he’s taking. I think that gives the Lakers the best chance to retain Howard
With not doing a sign-and-trade?
Van Gundy: By not even entertaining it and saying, ‘We’re all in. I think he’s a great great player and I think he’s healthy.’ Howard definitely wants to be wanted. He loves the whole recruiting process. He didn’t get it in high school because he decided to go straight to the NBA so I just think he loves the attention. I think Mitch Kupchak not wavering on their interest level in him gives them their best shot at being able to retain him.
To build off of that, the Lakers approach on Howard has been nuanced. Mitch has been very supportive of Dwight and the injury situation is going through this year. A lot of his teammates say they want him back, but they also say they will give him the space to explore free agency. And then you have the Lakers putting banners in L.A. asking Dwight to stay. What do you make of the Lakers’ overall approach in hoping Dwight stays?
You shouldn’t have to beg a guy to stay with the Lakers. In the short term, the Lakers would obviously be hurt if Howard left. But in the long term, the Lakers are the Lakers. They, along with the Celtics, are the most successful franchise in the NBA and have consistently taken steps to make sure their fanbase gets the best possible product to cheer for. They have gone as far as they can to tell him that they want him back. But listen, he has to want to be there. To be, if you’re a grown man, you shouldn’t need to be begged. You have a decision to make and you have all the information you could possibly need. There’s so much behind-the-scenes that can’t be monitored by the NBA. He knows exactly who wants him. There’s not much more information he could possibly get except get more attention. I just think he loves it. Why? I don’t know. But he does.
How would you evaluate his past season?
I’m not necessarily a huge fan of how this has played out the last three years. But I’m a huge fan of his game. People say, ‘This guy is the best center in basketball’ or ‘That guy is the best center in basketball.’ They have all these different people are the best centers in basketball. Yet, I look at his numbers this year and I say to myself, ‘Any center in the game would kill to have the numbers he had this year’ and people are saying this is one of his worst years ever. To me, he is the best center in basketball. But he has to accept who he is as a player. His greatness isn’t where he wants his greatness to be. He wants his greatness to be a dominant low-post scorer a la Shaquille O’Neal or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and all those guys. That’s not where his greatness lies. His lack of role acceptance into who he is and how he can dominate, he says it a lot. But it’s not truly what he wants to be. I think that caused some issues this year around their team.
I’m really interested to see how it plays out because there are a number of teams, and rightfully so, that would love to have him. Particularly the Lakers, they have gone as far as they can. Either you want the big market and the pressure and responsibility that comes with that, or you don’t.
Where do you think his greatness lies in his game?
Van Gundy: His greatness is when he’s locked in and focused on what he does best, he is the premier center defensively and rebounding wise in the NBA that can still average 18 or 19 points, 20 points a game without ever running a play for him. To me, if he totally and completely bought in to that greatness that he has, you have a guy who I thought in Orlando is in the top 3 or 5 most valuable players in the year. I don’t think he got enough consideration for all that he had done. But that’s how dominant he can be. If this his bad year, there’s not another center in the league who wouldn’t say, ‘I’ll sign up for that.’
When you look at Dwight’s decision, I know obviously the Lakers got swept in the first round and there’s questions regarding their roster. But all things considered, would you say the Lakers are the best fit for him from a basketball standpoint?
Van Gundy: Listen, when anyone in the NBA says it’s all about winning and giving myself the best chance to win, my antenna goes up. There’s so very few who actually feel that way. They know how to play the media game. But what they never say at the end is the ‘dot, dot, dot, I want to do it my way.’ They say, ‘All I care about is winning.’ That’s what the quote is. But the reality is it’s the ‘dot, dot, dot, if I get my own way.’ No team has proven they’re more committed to winning than the Lakers. Do they have some roster things that need to be worked on because teams get old? Of course, they do. There’s also other great places he can go with Houston or Dallas. But he’s going to have some of the same issues there.
Are any of those teams going to say, ‘You’re going to be the first option offensively. We’re playing through you.’ Are we going to play through you instead of James Harden? Are we going to play through you instead of playing through Dirk Nowitzki. Maybe in Atlanta he could be that guy. They don’t seem to have anybody else on their roster that would be better than him. But can you win it, if he’s the guy you’re playing through? There’s a lot of layers to this. I think the Lakers are a great organization. But you have to want the situation and I don’t know if that’s what he wants or not.
If the core of this roster stays put, what’s your evaluation of their chances to get back to championship contention? Their core was not healthy, but I don’t expect them to be healthy this year either. Is Steve Nash going to be healthy? I don’t know. Probably not at 40. Kobe Bryant, I think he’ll come back strong. Howard, even though backs are troublesome, he’ll have a healthier year. I think Gasol’s knees will be better. Their starting lineup seems very good. But they don’t have a lot invested in their bench and I think their bench was below average. Because of the injuries, the bench had to play a more significant role than it probably should have. They have things to work out. But to get in the hunt, you have to be good to beat Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Clippers. But certainly the Lakers can. They sign Howard back, Gasol is healthy, Bryant comes back healthy and they can add somebody of significance to bolster their bench, they have a good shot.
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