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So Far, Dwight Howard’s Remarriage With the Lakers Is Nothing Like Their First

The Lakers center is in his second go-around with the team, following his appearance in the infamous 2012-13 season. This time, though, with LeBron and Anthony Davis serving as the focal points of the roster, he seems content to carve out a different kind of role.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Throughout his career, Quinn Cook has made a habit of sticking around after games to put up extra shots. That’s just what an undrafted journeyman, who has played for four teams in four seasons, does to give himself an edge. This practice is usually a solo endeavor, but on Friday night, after the Lakers beat the Jazz 95-86 in their home opener, someone else joined Cook out on the Staples Center court: Dwight Howard.

“He just went out there on his own last game,” Cook said Sunday night after the Lakers’ 120-101 win over the Hornets, during which Howard went 8-for-8 from the field, recorded 16 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocks, and had the home crowd on his side. “It was a lot of fun to watch and be a part of.”

Howard returned to the court after Sunday’s game, though this time he and Cook went out together. The two took turns hoisting up shots by the perimeter while fans were still emptying out, and as Howard swished shots, sporadic calls of “Dwight! Dwight!” echoed throughout the arena. One fan repeatedly yelled “Dwight Curry!” as Howard downed 3s. And a group of children wearing LeBron jerseys and standing behind the basket yelled out in unison: “Dwight, we love you!” Howard looked over, smiled, and waved to them. A Staples Center attendant asked Howard whether he and Cook would be done soon because they needed to finish clearing out the floor.

“We’re trying to be great,” Howard told her with a smile as he made a left-side corner 3. “We’re almost done.”

This ritual of extra shooting after playing in a game can easily come off as performative—something designed to make a player look like an overachiever. But whether that was the endgame in this case is less important than the fact that Howard, who was once booed and hated by these same Lakers fans after his disastrous 2012-13 season in L.A., is hitting all the right notes so far in his second stint with the team.

“This didn’t happen last year,” one Lakers staffer told me about the postgame shooting session, before praising Howard’s demeanor on and off the court. Howard’s teammates also raved about him on Sunday. LeBron said that games like that are why the Lakers brought Howard here, and Anthony Davis said that the team is better when Howard is on the floor (not exactly, but more on that in a bit). Cook added that Howard has built a rapport with Rajon Rondo, who’s been out with a calf strain; when the two are on the bench together, Howard asks him what he sees. Cook has also noticed that Howard is being a vocal presence on the court.

Howard himself doesn’t lean too much into any sort of redemption narrative, though. He utters Bill Belichickian phrases like, “I’m just doing my job,” and, “There’s no personal satisfaction, it’s just about us winning.” But he did say he was grateful, and that he and the Lakers fans had “been through a lot together.” Which is true. The downfall of the 2012-13 L.A. team—the one that started the season with the infamous “Now This Is Going to Be FunSports Illustrated cover and ended with a first-round loss to the Spurs—is often pinned on Howard’s inability to be the kind of hard-nosed player Kobe Bryant wanted to play with and Howard’s desire for the offense to center on him. A lot can change in seven years, though, especially expectations.

After a preseason game just a few weeks ago, the scrum of reporters around Howard consisted of three people. On Sunday, as he walked into the locker room after the shooting session, he had to wade through a crowd nearly the size of LeBron’s and Davis’s just to get to his stall. It’s striking how quickly the attention has come for a player who wandered from Houston to Atlanta (where his departure was cheered) to Charlotte and Washington after 2013, was in free-agency purgatory as recently as two months ago, and then signed a prove-it, nonguaranteed one-year deal with a team that had previously run him out of town. At the time of his signing, it was unclear whether Howard would even make it onto the full-time roster. But through three games, Howard has earned the cheers, the approval from his teammates and coach—and the increased minutes he’s getting.

Coming into the season, Howard’s role on the Lakers seemed to be that of an effort and energy guy off the bench—someone who was there to set screens and grab rebounds. Anything else would be gravy. But when you’re surrounded by LeBron and Davis, there are plenty of opportunities to sprinkle in some added production, and even—in cases like Sunday night, when Howard seemed to reach back into his software and find former iOS versions of himself—play a key role in a victory.

Howard isn’t starting, but he’s found ways to maximize his time in the lineup. In Friday’s game against the Jazz, he was the only traditional center who saw the floor in the second half, and on Sunday, his playing time ate into starter JaVale McGee’s minutes. If he keeps playing like he did last weekend, his role could increase to the point where he becomes an essential buffer for the Lakers’ ultimate weapon: Davis at center. When Davis plays at the 5, the Lakers enter into a small-ball “lethal” lineup (head coach Frank Vogel’s word). That group—which is filled out by LeBron, Alex Caruso, Danny Green, and Avery Bradley—propelled the Lakers to outscore Utah 31-18 in Friday’s third quarter, and so far has a plus-34 net rating through three games.

It is no secret that the Lakers are at their best when Davis is their center, but from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles—and going back to his time in New Orleans—he has not been shy about his preference for playing power forward. In the preseason, Vogel—whose teams have generally operated with a traditional center—played around with the Lakers’ options at the 5 and seemed ready to acquiesce to Davis’s positional request. But it took only three regular-season games for that notion—and Vogel’s claim that the team didn’t plan on switching much on defense—to start deteriorating.

“We were faster,” Danny Green said Friday of the small-ball lineup. “AD defensively was a monster. We did better with the pick-and-roll coverages and talking and communicating and switching.” LeBron touted the driving lanes that lineup created, too, while Vogel was careful to couch it all by saying he wanted to balance deploying that group with giving Davis breaks from banging down low with centers.

Enter Howard. If he can continue to remain a plus on the floor, then it’s possible the Lakers will have to resort to their small-ball lineup only in case of an emergency. The most-used Lakers lineup with Howard so far this season has a net rating of plus-16.3 (granted, it’s a small sample size—they’re averaging 16 minutes per game together) and Howard won’t be going up against Cody Zeller and the Hornets every night. But occupying this role, he also doesn’t need to put up a double-double and four blocks in every game. Sometimes his size and presence will be enough.

“I remember telling him in the third quarter, ‘We need your energy,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I got you,’” Caruso said on Sunday. “Whenever he gets going the crowd gets going, and he feeds off that.”

Sunday night felt like the idealized version of this awkward yet charming remarriage. It was just the type of game Howard needed to solidify himself as a cult favorite among the very same fans who once loathed him. When he finally exited the game with just under four and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter, the crowd rewarded him with a standing ovation. How quickly things can change.

The hope now is that Howard stays level-headed and maintains his role. The excitement surrounding him is confirmation that he can still contribute to a team, but with LeBron and AD on the roster, he’ll never be anything more than a role player—something Howard seems to have accepted so far. “If you go out there and play hard, fans are going to love that,” he said.

It’s clear that Howard is loving what he gets out of it, too. Once his interview session wrapped up late Sunday night and the media began to dissipate, he looked over at a Lakers PR official and asked how he did. “Was that good?” he said. Once he got the approval, he grabbed his Dolce & Gabbana toiletry bag to complete his form-fitting Dolce & Gabbanna blue and gold tracksuit with the word “King” printed on his waist. He said goodbye to all the Lakers coaches and equipment staffers still in the locker room, and then he walked out with a smile.