One of the most fascinating stories of the 2019-20 NBA season thus far has been the resurgence of Los Angeles Lakers big man Dwight Howard.
The 34-year-old center played just nine games last year and it seemed like his playing days were nearing an end. However, now he’s playing well for the same franchise that he once left on not-so-great terms.
Considering that Howard has seemingly turned a new leaf, it was interesting to hear from his former Orlando Magic teammate Jameer Nelson. The 2009 All-Star spoke with our own Alex Kennedy about playing alongside Howard for eight years and the big man’s drama-filled departure from Orlando.
“We had a culture and when that culture got broken, that’s when the team started to break up,’ Nelson said. “There were different reasons why the culture broke, but the main thing was certain guys weren’t seeing eye-to-eye anymore. The goal changed. Social media started coming into play. The brand started getting bigger for individual guys. Winning wasn’t even the priority at that time, in my opinion, for certain guys. It kind of got blown up because of that, in my opinion. I’m sure you’ve been around and you’ve seen it. But it kind of deflates you and you’re like: ‘Ugh, I don’t feel like coming to practice today because it’s not going to be as fun.’ Our practices used to be fun. When we were winning, everything was fun. But when things got a little tougher and adversity hit, certain guys just didn’t want to be there anymore.”
Howard was coming off three consecutive seasons in which he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. In 2008-09, the Magic advanced to the NBA Finals and then made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals in the following season. But in 2010-11, Orlando was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
As such, there was a very different vibe around the team entering the following season. Winning was no longer the focus, explained Nelson, and Howard publicly requested a trade. Despite asking to be traded in December of 2011, Howard wasn’t actually dealt until August of 2012.
“Every day when we came in, it was about Dwight wanting to be traded and about Dwight wanting Stan [Van Gundy] to be fired and things like that,” Nelson said. “Everybody found anything but positive things to say to us. But I thought we handled it well. We still continued to win; we still played and we fought through it. But it was just a lot of weight on everybody’s shoulders. From the players to the coaching staff. It took a lot out of you, dealing with all of that negativity. A lot of things that happen in professional sports just need to stay in the locker room or in the office. Whether it’s with the general manager, the owner or the team president, if you want to have a conversation with that person, just let it stay there. If you want to request a trade, request it quietly. Then, things won’t trickle down to your coach, your teammates and your fans. It had an effect on everybody, [even] the people working on the business side. Nobody was having any fun anymore. It was almost like the ending to a great movie, and it was a sad ending.”
Nelson noted that the franchise still found ways to win, which is fair because they made the playoffs. However, they were coming off of three years in a row of owning the best record in the Southeast Division and finished with at least 50 wins in each of those seasons. But in 2011-12, they entered the postseason as a No. 6 seed with a .561 win percentage (37-29).
While most of the blame for the regression was put on Howard, Nelson did say that the big man shouldn’t get all of the blame. He told Kennedy that he hasn’t had a chance to clear the air with Howard yet, but he hopes to eventually reconcile with the eight-time NBA All-Star.
“To put all of it on Dwight isn’t fair,” Nelson said. “To say, ‘If he would’ve stayed, things would’ve been the same…’ or, ‘He’s the reason why everything broke up,’ is not fair because there were other things that transpired as well. I’m sure there are certain things [that happened] that we’ll probably never know. But I definitely would like to sit down and talk with him one day. And I’ve always rooted for him; I’ve been on his side and wanted to see him come out on top. But I’m definitely looking forward to that day when I get to sit down and talk with him and iron some things out.”