Branded by many as Kobe Bryant’s heir apparent when he was traded to the Lakers in 2012, Dwight Howard was supposed to transform the team into an NBA title contender for years to come.
Unfortunately, Howard’s brief, underwhelming stint in Los Angeles made him a polarizing figure among fans, and the Lakers were forced to re-think their long-term roster plans after a very public campaign failed to keep him in Los Angeles after only one season.
The Orlando Magic sent Howard to the Lakers as part of a four-team, blockbuster trade involving the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets on Aug. 10, 2012. In addition to Howard, the Lakers acquired Chris Duhon and Earl Clark as part of the deal. Among the players traded by the Lakers was center Andrew Bynum (to Philadelphia), who won two titles with the Lakers and who would be replaced by Howard on the roster.
Howard arrived in Los Angeles to much fanfare and talk of the Lakers being a favorite to win the franchise’s 17th championship. However, with Howard coming off surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, questions were raised about his fitness level when he struggled in the early part of the 2012-13 season. He suffered a torn labrum in January and, coupled with Pau Gasol’s ongoing foot and knee problems, the Lakers struggled to maintain a dominant presence under the basket. His rebounding totals were strong, but his scoring and free-throw numbers were well below-average as the Lakers finished the first half of the season with a disappointing 17-24 record.
Howard managed to play in his seventh NBA All-Star Game, but the 6-foot-11 center admitted he needed to renew his focus on his fitness if he wanted to make a bigger impact for a Lakers squad that was in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
It was during the second half of the season that tension between Howard and his Lakers teammates started to increase. Howard, while saying he wanted to do what was best for the team, publicly questioned why he wasn’t getting the ball more. He also disagreed with the amount of shots Bryant was taking. “We saw different ways of going about leading this team,” Bryant told The Times. “Dwight wanted to do it one way and he felt like it was effective. I wanted to do it another way. It was constant tension the second half of the season.”
Despite these ongoing problems, the Lakers finished the second half of the season with a 28-13 record and qualified for the playoffs. In the process, Howard tied an NBA record for free-throw attempts in a game (39) and a team record for free-throws made (25) when he played in Orlando on March 12 for the first time since his trade to the Lakers. Despite being booed every time he touched the ball, Howard finished with a season-high 39 points.
While Howard’s play improved during the second half of the season, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Bryant-depleted Lakers from being swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. His last game with the Lakers ended in the third quarter of Game 4 when he was ejected after receiving his second technical foul in a dismal, 103-82 loss.
After the game, Howard described his season with the Lakers as a “nightmare” but gave hope that he would return to the team in 2013-14. “It was like a bad dream, and we couldn’t wake up out of it. That’s what it felt like. It seemed like nothing could go right from the start – injuries and all that stuff. But we’ll get an opportunity to get some rest for guys who are injured or coming off injuries, get a chance to rehab, and think about what we can all do to better ourselves.”
Howard led the NBA in rebounding, but posted the second-lowest scoring total of his career (17.1 points per game) and a .492 free-throw average. Set to become an unrestricted free agent, the Lakers were eager to bring him back despite his subpar season. The team even started billboard and Twitter campaigns in an effort to convince him to return. Despite these efforts, in July 2013 Howard signed a four-year contract with the Houston Rockets reportedly worth close to $88 million.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said about losing Howard to Houston. “Clearly, we wanted to keep him here in Los Angeles, and I felt we did everything we could do within reason to show we did want to keep him here. Until the end, I kept up hope….I wasn’t shocked, but I was disappointed.”
Howard also was disappointed things didn’t work out in Los Angeles, but said he didn’t regret leaving the Lakers.
“Everybody’s saying I was a ‘coward’ for leaving [the Lakers], and I knew I was going to get that,” Howard told the Orlando Sentinel. “But I think with the situation I had to do what was best for Dwight.
“People are going to hate me for whatever reason, so I can’t allow that to stop me from making my decision…. I don’t care about being an outcast or about being somebody that may look bad. All I’ve got to do is win now, and I’m in the right situation.”