Last week, the Los Angeles Lakers learned that DeMarcus Cousins had torn his ACL, a tragic turn for one of the league’s most beleaguered stars. After the shock wore off, discussion turned toward roster replacements. Over the weekend, one name dominated: Dwight Howard, then a member of the Memphis Grizzlies but not expected to play for the young team.
To be sure, the rumors seemed to be emanating primarily from Howard’s camp. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported late Sunday that the Lakers aren’t set on bringing in a bought-out Howard for a second tour at STAPLES Center, but are doing their due diligence in the wasteland market for centers. Yet on Friday, they chose him, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Howard’s buyout with the Grizzlies is finalized, and he’ll sign with the Lakers once he’s cleared waivers.
Joakim Noah (on the Grizzlies, funnily enough) was another name connected to the Lakers right now. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if Aron Baynes, currently on the Suns, made it into a rumor cycle. Kenneth Faried is probably the best free agent option out there, or Amir Johnson if you think he has another season in the tank. (How many Lakers fans discovered over the weekend, to their dismay, that Greg Monroe and Kosta Koufos signed in Europe this summer?)
But finding a replacement at the center position is only part of the problem, and probably only a minor part of the problem. The only healthy high-end centers left in the Western Conference are Rudy Gobert (not a major offensive threat), Nikola Jokic (a problem for everyone), Karl-Anthony Towns (stuck on a mediocre team), and LaMarcus Aldridge (getting up there in years). Kristaps Porzingis and Clint Capela are somewhere in the mix, depending on various things. If the Lakers make the playoffs and meet the Nuggets, Jokic would have been a problem with or without Cousins. The rest is a wash.
What Cousins really represented was more than a slot in a position, though. Cousins was the Lakers’ X-factor, the affordable side dish that could be a main course any given night. We know LeBron James and Anthony Davis make for a fearsome duo, even if we haven’t witnessed it yet. LeBron and Davis are inevitable. Cousins was going to be the something extra. An All-Star caliber player acquired on the cheap, able to be a differentiator between a really good team and a great team, if things broke right.
Things didn’t break right.
Now the Lakers are legitimately counting on Kyle Kuzma making a significant leap, or one of the lightly heralded young players breaking out something fierce, or LeBron and Davis forming not just one of the greatest 1-2 punches in modern basketball but ever. The Lakers with a rejuvenated, reborn Cousins could have won the West. What will it take now? It seems more than L.A. can offer.
Of course, there are not many reclamation projects as boom or bust as Cousins out there, perhaps none going into the offseason. Here’s the twist: Howard qualifies as a candidate on these grounds in addition to being a center. Howard barely played in Washington last season due to injury and, eventually, ruin for the Wizards. Because the Wizards fandom convinced itself that Howard was actually a great reclamation project last summer and that failed so miserably, few are willing to admit this summer that, actually, Howard’s a decent reclamation project option.
On-court, the performance has been fine when he’s available. And he’s played more than 70 games in five of the past seven years going back to his first tour in Los Angeles. The problem has been that every team is seemingly eager to get rid of him as soon as possible, or is relieved when he disappears. This is chalked up to a locker room or team culture issue.
Can the Lakers’ team culture stand up to the disruptive forces of Dwight Howard?
Do the Lakers have a team culture? No. Does that make adding a subtraction machine like Howard a bigger risk? Yes.
Is it still worth it to get Howard’s rebounding and a chance at some rejuvenated defense? Probably.
There are not many potential 12-12-2 players sitting around, waiting to be picked up off the scrap heap. Howard’s upside at age 33 isn’t close to anything Cousins offered this season, but if he actually buys into this project — a much more promising project than anything Dwight has been a part of since Houston — and if LeBron can show him the light, this could be fruitful.
Left unsaid is what Davis has told Lakers management about his desire to avoid playing center, and what the Lakers have promised him to that effect. Remember, Davis isn’t locked into a long-term agreement with L.A. He’s a free agent next summer. And while everyone assumes he’ll re-up after forcing a trade to the Lakers, the team still needs to honor any promises made to him. If there’s a side deal here to prevent Davis from being a full-time pivot, signing a minutes-soaking center to help JaVale McGee is a must.
Dwight Howard can’t be anyone’s panacea. But then, neither could DeMarcus Cousins. The center the Lakers lost was there to provide something extra, something to take a team led by LeBron and A.D. over the top. Cousins’ body robbed him of that opportunity. Howard can’t offer the Lakers the potential for greatness Cousins did, but there’s a nugget of what was lost in there, if only LeBron, the Lakers staff, and — most of all — Howard can dig it out.