When the Los Angeles Lakers lost DeMarcus Cousins to injury before the season, they signed Dwight Howard to a veteran-minimum contract.
For the 33-year-old former No. 1 overall pick and eight-time NBA All-Star, it was a chance to revamp his career. He has drastically changed his diet, spent more time in the gym even after games and has a new approach to his demeanor both on and off the court.
While it is still early, the gamble from the front office has seemingly paid off at least so far. As the Lakers were in the midst of a comeback effort on the road against the Chicago Bulls earlier this week, Howard gave fans one of the franchise’s more impressive moments of the season.
After scoring on a putback dunk to cut the deficit to just four points, the big man picked up rookie point guard Coby White on the perimeter. He stayed in front of his man and the moment he started to get beaten on the drive, he extended his arms and blocked the attempt into oblivion.
It was a “welcome to the league” moment for the first-year player out of the University of North Carolina. But it was also one that has helped define this season for the Lakers, who have emphasized their defensive efforts.
His play has earned praise from LeBron James, who had this to say about his first season playing alongside Howard (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“Protecting the rim, communicating on pick-and-rolls. Just his length, athleticism and communication have been very good to be the anchor on our defense. Because he’s the back line and he sees a lot of the action that’s going on… He’s been great.”
His defensive rating (91.9) is the best in the league, providing legs to the comments made by James. His block percentage is at a career-best, which is especially impressive considering that he is a three-time winner of Defensive Player of the Year.
On the offensive side, he has made smart choices and leads the league in effective field goal percentage (78.6) thus far. He has averaged 1.27 points per possession, per Synergy Sports, which ranks in the 97th percentile among all NBA players.
Among the 124 players who have had as many attempts from the restricted area this season, only one (Jabari Parker) has been more accurate than Howard.
Overall, the Lakers are playing better when he is on the court, as he also leads the league in net rating (22.5) to start the season as well. On a recent episode of The Hoop Collective podcast, Tim MacMahon brought Howard up as an early candidate for NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year (via ESPN):
“[He] understands exactly what he has to do to help an NBA team win now and is fully committed to being a defender, a rebounder, a finisher, a role player. And the only guy in the league with a better raw plus-minus than Dwight Howard is LeBron. Dwight is a legit Sixth Man of the Year (or Sixth Man of the first couple weeks) candidate… He has been a dominant role player off their bench.”
But it is not just that he has been fantastic with the second unit, considering his presence has blended well next to the superstars on his team.
During the 104 minutes that he has shared the court with Howard, James is averaging 31.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 9.0 assists per 36. Los Angeles has outscored opponents by 26.8 points per 100 possessions in that time. That is currently the best net rating of any two-man lineup to have played at least 100 minutes together thus far.
Howard has been a surprisingly good fit as a frontcourt pairing with Davis, who is averaging a ridiculous 44.8 points and 12.4 rebounds per 36 during their 72 minutes on the floor at the same time. The Lakers have outscored opponents by 37.1 points per 100 in these minutes.
Perhaps head coach Frank Vogel moves him into the starting lineup as the season progresses. But if not, the idea of winning Sixth Man of the Year is far from unreasonable.