The Lakers have a Dwight Howard problem

Harry How

It's early, but the Lakers are struggling. With the team at 8-9, it's time to look at what's wrong, and it all starts with Dwight Howard.

Before we get started on another "What's Wrong With The Lakers?" column, please note that two years ago at this time, the Miami Heat were 9-8. After an offseason full of title guarantees and general ridiculousness, LeBron and the Heat were 9-8, and generally a universal punching bag.

As Adrian Wojnarowski wrote after the loss that dropped Miami to 9-8 in 2010:

The fundamental problem for Spoelstra isn’t that James doesn’t respect coaches – he doesn’t respect people. Give LeBron this, though: He’s learned to live one way with the television light on, and another with it off. He treats everyone like a servant, because that’s what the system taught him as a teenage prodigy. To James, the coach isn’t there to mold him into the team dynamic. He’s there to serve him.

Ahh ... So many memories.

Later that year, you remember: The Heat steamrolled the Eastern Conference playoffs as LeBron disemboweled that season's MVP (Derrick Rose), and all the early-season hand-wringing looked ridiculous. They eventually lost in the Finals so it all came back in 2011, but then Miami rectified that failure this past June. Now the guy who "doesn't respect people" is the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

So yeah: It's a little early to write off the Lakers.

But then that's a little too easy.

From Lee Jenkins' LeBron profile in this week's Sports Illustrated:

He muted his on-court celebrations. He cut the jokes in film sessions. He threw heaps of dirt over the tired notion that he froze in the clutch. "He got rid of the bulls---," says one of his former coaches, and he quietly hoped the public would notice. When James strides into an opposing arena, he takes in the crowd, gazes up at the expressions on the faces. "I can tell the difference between 2010 and 2012," he says. Anger has turned to appreciation, perhaps grudging, but appreciation nonetheless. James has become an entry on a bucket list, a spectacle you have to see at least once, whether you crave the violence of sports or the grace, the force or the finesse. He attracts the casual fan with his ferocious dunks and the junkie with his sublime pocket passes. He is a Hollywood blockbuster with art-house appeal.

So far in 2012, we've seen a hundred different knee-jerk dismissals of the Lakers, and then a hundred knee-jerk dismissals of the dismissals, because it's early. The second part is true and important to remember while you tell your Lakers jokes. We were telling these same jokes about the Heat a few years ago. But LeBron and the Heat didn't just magically change the second they won a title, even if it seems like that's the way it happened.

LeBron really did change. It took massive failure and then (almost) a repeat (against the Celtics last spring) to set it all in stone, but LeBron changed. He developed the post game everyone had been suggesting for a decade, he played hard in every single game and was a one-man nuclear weapon in every playoff series the Heat had last year. When LeBron got rid of the bullshit, he became the player we expected all along and the Heat became the team we expected all along.

Which brings us to Dwight Howard, who's pretty much the undisputed King of BS in the 2012 NBA. For further reading, there's this, but for a more recent example, just look at Sunday night's Magic-Lakers game.

He spent the fourth quarter getting torched on defense by his old team, he missed more than half his free throws as Orlando intentionally sent him to the line over and over again throughout the fourth quarter, and aside from the soul-crushing loss to his completely overmatched old team, he topped it all off in the locker room post-game pregame. He's only signed to a one-year deal in L.A. this year. Would he consider playing somewhere else?

"I want to do it the best that I can and I’m going to take everything in I can to get what I can out of the NBA. Which, for me, is winning a championship. So if I have to play on another team or do whatever I have to do to get one, that’s my goal. This is my passion, so I’ll continue to fight."

WHY DOES HE KEEP DOING THIS?

Seriously.

He just played this game, and it sabotaged his team and made him the most unpopular player in basketball. It shouldn't be possible for someone to enrage everyone so consistently, but here we are. All he had to say was, "I'm in L.A. now and that's all that matters." But he didn't, because he's Dwight Howard, the superstar that's determined to light his dignity on fire as often as possible.

What's amazing is that this isn't even the Lakers' biggest problem. That happens on the court, where Dwight's something like the big man version of Vince Carter -- as talented as anyone ever, but just underwhelming enough to perpetually drive his team insane. Where this gets complicated is the talent, though.

As L.A. tries to convince Dwight to stay another year, they're running the offense through him, relying on him in the fourth quarter and generally treating him like a cornerstone. It will doom the Lakers if they keep it up.

The reason Dwight made sense when they traded for him is because he was a player who could single-handedly improve the two weakest areas on the team -- defense and rebounding -- and allow the rest of the team to click around him. But so far this year -- under three different head coaches -- the Lakers are running a lot of their offense through Dwight in the low post, almost treating him like the new Shaq. This is insanity. Catering to Dwight is what stupid teams like the Cavs and Magic do. The Lakers are supposed to be smarter, right?

They have Pau Gasol, as polished a post player as we've seen this decade (and a great passer), and instead they're anchoring the offense around Dwight's robotic post moves, where the most likely scenario is one or two missed foul shots. The Lakers miss Steve Nash right now, they're not playing Jordan Hill or Jodie Meeks as much as they should, they need another shooter, and there are plenty of other solid explanations for why they look so sloppy this early. But there are bigger issues here, and over the long term, what they do with Dwight could be the difference between a title and a second-round playoff loss for the third year in a row.

Dwight is good enough to make this summer's Lakers' trade worth it. But if they're building around him on the court to try to convince him to sign with L.A. this summer, it's just not worth it. Kobe is too old for the team to waste a year trying to appease Dwight.

How can this still work? Keep Dwight on the weakside on offense, run things through Pau more, Kobe and Nash way more once Nash gets back, and make it Dwight's No. 1 job to grab 15 rebounds a game and win defensive player of the year. They can still run murderous pick-and-rolls with him, but they should take the number of Dwight post-up plays and divide it by 10.

In other words, the Lakers need to realize that Dwight makes the most sense playing as the greatest role player of all time. And Dwight needs to realize that if he does that, he'll have the best shot at a title he'll see for his entire career.

So, "What's Wrong With The Lakers?"

(1) Dwight Howard.

(2) The Lakers catering to Dwight Howard.

It's still early, but the Lakers are 8-9, not 9-8. They aren't the same team as the 2010 Heat. They are older, slower, and the whole experiment's more fragile. The one similarity: It all hinges on the evolution of one gigantic, gigantically tone-deaf superstar accepting his role--stop openly wondering about free agency, give up touches on offense, play hard every night and work his ass off on defense and the boards.

The Lakers' title hopes come down to whether Dwight actually learned the biggest lesson from LeBron: Winning changes everything, but you only get that far if you actually change.

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