HOUSTON — Everywhere the Lakers turned, another reminder of Dwight Howard popped up.
The Lakers will play the Houston Rockets here Thursday at Toyota Sports Center in what will mark the team’s first reunion with Howard since he left the purple and gold’s glorious past in hopes of launching the Rockets’ future. Plenty of billboards marked Howard’s arrival inside and outside the arena. And, oh yeah, plenty of reporters asked about Howard too, sparking memories of a championship caliber season gone sour.
“We would’ve loved for him to be here in LA,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said mere moments after jokingly suggesting he forgot Howard’s name. “It didn’t work out. We turned the page and go on.”
While the Rockets are off to a 4-1 start, the Lakers don’t have a franchise player to succeed Kobe Bryant. They rank last in defense in nearly every statistical category. And despite having 16 NBA championships and a strong lineage of Lakers centers named Mikan, Wilt, Kareem and Shaq, Howard’s departure coupled with the recent labor deal designed to create more balance may suggest the Lakers’ lure to attract superstars no longer remain as dependable as Jack Nicholson sitting on the sidelines.
“He made his decision. He thought that was the best choice for him,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “I respect him for it.”
Did the Lakers sense Howard would pass up a five-year $118 million deal with the Lakers to go to Houston at a four-year deal worth $87 million?
“It was 50-50,” D’Antoni said, shrugging. “It was one of those things where you never know what people are thinking. You never now someone’s personal life with what they want and what they’re looking for. You hope, but you just don’t know.”
“We knew there were problems and we didn’t know which way would go.”
Plenty of things frustrated Howard.
Kobe Bryant recently acknowledged the two had “constant tension,” rooted in Bryant’s serious demeanor and Howard’s goofy personality. It appeared both wanted the largest offensive role on the team. Steve Nash often griped with Howard about his effort level on pick-and-rolls. Incidentally, neither Bryant nor Nash spoke to reporters. But Gasol provided some insight on the Bryant-Howard dynamics.
“There was definitely a lack of understanding and connection,” Gasol said. “I don’t know how much tension there was, but there were days where it was fine and everybody was on the same page. Once things get a little rough, that’s when the tensions start to come up. It was a tough year and lot of things didn’t go our way. That made it more difficult.”
Also worthy to note: Howard disliked D’Antoni’s system. Howard believed D’Antoni insisted too much on the Lakers running a faster pace despite the team’s veteran’s laden roster. Howard didn’t believe D’Antoni devoted enough time in practice going over defensive concepts. Howard also wanted more of an offensive role in the post instead of in pick-and-rolls.
“Strange they’re doing the exact same thing here that we tried to do so,” D’Antoni said sarcastically, referring to Houston’s offense that entails a heavy dose of James Harden and Jeremy Lin running pick-and-rolls with Howard. “But that’s fine. We’re cool.”
How about how much Howard was featured on offense, though?
“He might be right, but it’s tough when you have three Hall of Famers on the floor at the same time,” D’Antoni said, referring to Bryant, Nash and Gasol. “That’s too bad you’re not the No. 1 guy we go to. But I think a lot of it is you’re not healthy, there’s a lot of pressure and there’s lots of squawking. And there was a lot of stuff that piled on. You can’t fault him for that.”
D’Antoni was referring to Howard’s season-long injuries that entailed playing through a surgically repaired back and, later, a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Howard averaged 17 points on 57.8 percent shooting and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds per game, his lowest marks since the 2006-07 season. He actually returned to the lineup in late October after the Lakers’ training staff initially expected him to return in January. Howard felt throughout the season that he didn’t receive enough support and sympathy for playing through injuries that limited his timing, explosiveness, conditioning and athleticism.
“I can’t speak for a person’s body and how he’s feeling and what he’s going through,” Gasol said. “We knew he wasn’t 100 percent. That’s what he talked about. That’s what he shared. He had the shoulder issue as well. We all had issues.”
What about Howard’s?
“He had certain expectations and demands as far as the game that wenre’t fulfilled. It was a big job of adjusting. We all had to adjust. He had to adjust and give up and sacrifice himself for the benefit of the team and how much are you willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the eam and understand what it takes to takes and know what the team needs from you specifically not what you would like to give in particular. Those are the questions we all should’ve asked ourselves and put ourselves in common and work from there. But you live and you learn. It didn’t work out.”
It didn’t work out for Gasol, either.
Injuries and a reduced role to accommodate Howard’s limited mid-range game and entice him to stay resulted in the Lakers featuring Gasol more as a facilitator and along the perimeter. He also came off the bench for six games because of D’Antoni’s preference for a quicker and smaller lineup featuring an emerging Earl Clark. That played a large factor in Gasol averaging career-lows last season in points (13.7) and field-goal percentage (46.6 percent).
Gasol has found a silver lining in Howard’s departure enhancing his role. But through five games, Howard’s presence has left a gaping hole on defense. Through five games, the Lakers’ defense have allowed an average of 109 points per game (29th overall out of 30 NBA teams) on 47.98 percent shooting (27th) and on 28.2 assists (30th)
“You don’t have that shot blocker that will bail you out some of the time,” Gasol said. “We don’t have anyone who can protect the rim like Dwight can with his athleticism. He’s a guy who gets his hands on balls, is aggressive and gets a couple of steals every game. Those are extra possessions that we have to make up for in different areas. We have smaller guys that are quicker and more athletic and have to utilize that different things.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org