Howard’s second Lakers stint officially started Friday, when he agreed to sign a one-year, non-guaranteed contract for the veteran’s minimum after reaching a buyout agreement with the Memphis Grizzlies. ESPN.com reported that Howard sacrificed $2.6 million in the buyout, meaning the maneuver could wind up costing him money if he doesn’t stick in L.A. for the entire season. The Lakers almost seemed ashamed of the move, news-dumping it on a summer Friday after days of public messaging indicating that Howard, now 33, would be held to a high standard. Whereas the Lakers once pitched Howard on a long-term reign, they now offered only the equivalent of a month-to-month lease.
With these starkly different circumstances laid out in full, it’s easy to spot the primary driver for this reunion: Howard and the Lakers share an all-encompassing, logic-defying desperation.
Their first go-round was a toxic relationship that ended with a bitter breakup: Howard never meshed with Bryant, tried to play through pain, got ejected from Game 4 of a first-round sweep, bailed for the Houston Rockets after one disappointing season and then was subjected to humiliating trash talk from Bryant and years of vitriol from L.A.’s fan base.
Howard's willingness to walk back into such a storm reflects his diminished earning power and lack of alternatives. During a nomadic journey that took him from the Rockets to the Atlanta Hawks to the Charlotte Hornets to the Washington Wizards, Howard’s usefulness and athleticism eroded. His offensive game was made mostly obsolete by the small-ball revolution, he could no longer carry an elite defense as his physical tools slipped, and he was unable to adapt mentally to a complementary role. Reports of poor relationships with his teammates and salacious off-court rumors have only made matters more complicated.
Last summer, the Wizards’ own desperation helped land Howard a two-year, $11 million contract. After Howard was limited to nine games because of injury, Washington president Ernie Grunfeld joined the list of executives and coaches to lose their jobs after crossing paths with the 2004 draft’s No. 1 pick. This summer, the market was even less amenable. Non-contenders, including the Grizzlies, had no reason to waste minutes on a former great. And most of the top contenders — the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Rockets — had superior inside personnel and could afford to pass.
The Lakers became the sole exception once DeMarcus Cousins, a gamble himself with his injury issues and mercurial personality, was lost to a season-ending ACL tear. Suddenly, a franchise that went all-in to land Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard had just one true center — JaVale McGee — and no meaningful salary cap flexibility to address its gaping hole. Those dire straits required quick action, in part because General Manager Rob Pelinka had committed in July to protecting Davis from the wear and tear associated with big minutes at center. Asking Davis, the premier 2020 free agent, to shoulder the burden of Cousins’s injury was a total nonstarter for obvious reasons.
Even so, L.A. should have trusted its cautious instincts rather than succumbing to the faint hope that Howard will show up at training camp as a changed man and an effective backup center. Howard takes up space in the paint on offense, he isn’t a skilled passer or shooter, he isn’t a particularly versatile defender, he isn’t a reliable worker, and he is accustomed to garnering lots of attention. The Lakers took chances on dicey, past-their-prime veterans last season — including Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley — and ended up with precious little to show for it. Signing Howard feels like a repeat of those mistakes, as well as a misguided sequel to his own previous tenure.
The knee-jerk defense is that Howard, given his meager contract and lack of leverage, is a low-risk proposition. Yet there were other low-risk possibilities, including signing Joakim Noah or trading a minor draft asset for a minimum-contract center, that wouldn’t have reopened old wounds or introduced a possible distraction for new coach Frank Vogel. Given these tidier and quieter options, one must assume that the Lakers are betting that Howard can significantly outplay his muted expectations.
This new marriage therefore emerges as a double-sided self-delusion. On one side, Howard hopes to postpone his forced retirement and reclaim some lost dignity by evolving in ways that have always eluded him. On the other, the Lakers are yet again hoping that name recognition will somehow translate to success, past results be damned.