CHICAGO — Looming a head taller than any of the nearby reporters or cameramen, Dwight Howard watched with a calm, surveying eye.
Alex Caruso was chatting up a scrum after the Lakers’ narrow comeback victory over the Bulls, of which they both were key components. Feeling Howard’s gaze, Caruso steered his comments toward his teammate.
“When you’ve got guys like Dwight Howard behind you leading the charge,” Caruso said with satirical emphasis, “it’s really easy to play hard and play good defense.”
Howard approved: His muscular arm slipped just beneath the frame of the camera shots, sliding a Twix bar noiselessly into the right pocket of Caruso’s sweatshirt.
In his 15th campaign in the NBA and about to turn 34 next month, the book on Howard is long, full of drama and has left a trail of disgruntled teammates and markets behind. But to say he’s a known quantity – well, that’s tougher to know for sure.
A return to L.A. – where a 2012-13 campaign underwhelmed sky-high expectations – came accompanied with a promise from Howard: He’s changed. It’s something that he’s promised many times before, but he’s made enough of an early splash in seven games as a Laker that there might be reason to finally believe it’s true.
It goes back to what he told a group of future teammates – Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee – when he worked out for the Lakers in August, which was widely seen as perhaps his last best chance to stay in the NBA.
“I told ’em, ‘I don’t want you guys to trust me talking,” he said. “I want to show you with my actions. Talking to me is cheap.”
A quote from Howard that talk is cheap carries a certain irony, but to his credit, his play has measured up. The 6-foot-10 center has been reminding fans of the player he used to be, albeit for brief stretches (6.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.1 bpg) at a time. He was on the court for the overtime win against the Mavericks, setting the game-tying (albeit illegal) screen at the end of regulation. He was 7 for 7 against the Spurs, dunking furiously in the fourth quarter. He had less offensive impact against Chicago, but hit a few key baskets late, combined with a spirit-killing block of a Coby White shot.
The very things Howard has been criticized for in recent years – wanting too many post-ups, not setting screens, playing indifferent defense – have been virtual non-issues since he arrived. Howard said for years, he was caught up in outside criticisms that he didn’t score enough, or wasn’t versatile enough, but now he’s let that go.
“I think every player’s dream is to score 30 and stuff like that,” he said. “I’ve done that, I’ve had that. I feel it. But the one thing that’s missing is a championship, and being part of something elite. What we have here is a championship-quality team. Elite players. Elite mindset. So I just have to do my job.”
His impact has had a measurably positive effect. The Lakers have outscored opponents by 71 points in his 152 minutes on the court, a plus-minus rating that is sandwiched only by LeBron James (plus-75) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (plus-70). In turn, Coach Frank Vogel has trusted Howard with crucial fourth-quarter minutes with the game on the line, during which he’s delivered.
There was certainly skepticism of Howard when he arrived, which took the form of a non-guaranteed contract that the Lakers can cut any time. But even though the team took Howard in on a tight leash, Vogel said he was optimistic even then that Howard could be a powerful addition.
“I had high hopes,” Vogel said. “I felt like when he came here, if we could get him to buy into that role which he seemed very willing to do, I felt like he could really have an impact for us. So I wouldn’t say it’s a surprise but I’m happy it’s playing out that way.”
It’s been a warm-and-fuzzy start, but the question with Howard is typically when the other shoe will drop. In previous destinations (including his earlier stint in L.A.), he grew frosty with other star teammates and playoff success past his Orlando years has been frustratingly elusive.
Behind that is a deeper question: Has Howard truly changed?
In his sessions with the media, he oscillates characters. At times, he’s monotone, calmly reciting lines that sound well-rehearsed: How the past doesn’t matter; how he has no ego; how he’s not worried about shots or numbers, only winning. The bland persona doesn’t recite anything particularly memorable, but it doesn’t create waves either.
Then there’s the player formerly known as D-12 (a name retired now that Howard wears No. 39), who flashes playfulness, fiddles with the locker room stereo volume and slips candy bars to teammates. Howard is prone to his own brand of Yogi Berra-isms, recently saying “I don’t see it as my role, I see it as a purpose,” or “A lot of people try to get rich with money, but try to get rich with your body.” After Tuesday’s game, he posted video of himself doing pull-ups minutes after the win. It’s the Howard that is reminiscent of the fresh-faced Atlanta kid who charmed the league as a teenager with a megawatt smile, but also the character whose act eventually wore itself out in a handful of cities.
Is that true maturity? Is it simply one persona dousing the impulses of another? It’s difficult to parse. But the most important factor might be that Howard sincerely wants to change.
While Howard dislikes discussing the past in interviews, he acknowledged that he got to hear a lot of the grumbling he left behind from stints in Houston, Atlanta and Charlotte – and yes, L.A., too. He bristled when it was suggested he was a bad teammate, unprofessional or a sower of drama.
“I hated it, I hated it,” he said. “Wherever my mistakes could’ve been as a player, the one thing I’ve never been is a bad person. I don’t know how to be that type of person. I love people. I love spending time with them.”
Howard still puts some walls up about his reputation in the league, which he thinks was caused in part by “jealousy or envy … or who knows what people thought.” But he also embraced at least some accountability, without wanting to delve too specifically into what he acknowledged as “my mistakes.” He thinks he was too demanding as a player in the past, and can now understand not only how that rubbed people the wrong way, but how it got him drifting off-course.
“I would demand this and demand that,” he said. “It’s kind of the wrong approach. That’s the noise from outside.”
Simplicity was Howard’s friend in the months leading to this season, as he shed weight through fasting and recovered from in-season surgery that limited him to just nine games last year. Howard, who famously has a sweet tooth, said he’s cut out as much sugar from his diet as possible – the fast food, chicken wings and honey buns have been eliminated.
His game has had its own diet: He’s more focused on his defensive and rebounding role, or “purpose,” rather than getting a touch to post up on the block. On a team where he doesn’t have to carry an offensive load, Howard seeks instead to return to what made him a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year in what seems like another life.
“I told myself whenever I get back on the court I was going to do whatever I can to get in the best shape of my life,” he said. “I know defense is where I made my mark in this league so I wanted to come back and just play as hard as I can on the defensive end.”
Maybe this is another phase of Howard’s career – maybe he’s truly ready to fulfill the championship promise that seemed so close when he and the Orlando Magic battled the Lakers in the 2009 Finals.
Whether the past matters to Howard or not, in the present, it’s somewhat irrelevant, because the Lakers seem ready to believe in him. The candy bar in his pocket certainly might have swayed his opinion, but on Tuesday night, Caruso seemed ready to endorse him either way.
“Bigs work hard, you’ve got to give them some shine,” he said to the cameras. “Gotta get them some love when you can.”