Ding: Time to hold Dwight Howard accountable
Kevin Ding column: The Lakers' season has been undermined by Dwight Howard's unwillingness to move beyond his own interests.
By KEVIN DING
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
CHICAGO – You can feel some sympathy for Dwight Howard, who again had an ice pack strapped to his back after the Lakers' latest loss Monday night.
You can acknowledge that he holds the power to act however he wants, because he can leave the Lakers with nothing at season's end as a free agent.
You just can't let him get away with the subpar effort, lack of responsibility and ongoing immaturity that has prevented the Lakers from ever truly uniting this season.
He has failed in that central way that everyone who has ever played on any team can understand: You get a feel for the other personalities, you make real efforts to serve in the best way for the team to win, and you earn your standing in the group by playing hard.
None among the cast of Lakers characters are blameless in a tragedy that has reached the season's midpoint and grows more epic by the day, but Howard has fallen short even of living up to his promise of a fresh start after that diva act in Orlando.
He has been more Shaquillian than he would ever admit – just without the one key element that can redeem a whole lot of everything: the utterly dominant play.
Despite Kobe Bryant shooting at a career-high level, Howard has mocked Bryant's shooting stats behind his back when he hasn't shot well, leaving Lakers teammates feeling awfully uncomfortable. Bryant has tried to connect with Howard, tried to support his free-throw failures with glowing words about how great Howard can be and tried most recently to accommodate that "inside-out" insistence by rising up to shoot and half-looking at the rim, half-looking for Howard.
Yet the only way Howard knows and wants is for him to be the go-to guy at both ends, and he made that clear again Monday night.
He said specifically after the Dec. 13 loss in New York that he likes the ball in the post, not via pick-and-roll plays – a logical reason he was so interested in the Lakers hiring Phil Jackson, the man who made Shaquille O'Neal a champion. On Monday night, Howard dwelled again on the individual negative after not getting many inside touches early on while Mike D'Antoni made an honest attempt to coach from the heart – benching Pau Gasol and investing anew in the pick-and-roll game the Lakers hired him to teach, however misguided that might be with the personnel as is.
Howard was already in a bad mood Monday from his unjust ejection in Toronto the day before. (The NBA rescinded his second technical foul, but replays do show Howard initiating the incident by locking up the arm of Toronto's Alan Anderson before Anderson jerked it free with a forearm raised toward Howard.)
Instead of channeling his frustrations into energy on the court in Chicago – remember that D'Antoni's mantra is: "Ball finds energy" – Howard settled for slow and didn't understand why that didn't work. Then he got annoyed with some Bulls who were playing harder than he was, committed some fourth-quarter frustration fouls and finished with eight points and a team-high four turnovers.
After the game he brought a stat sheet around the locker room to show some teammates and reporters how he got only five field-goal attempts ... a few minutes before the demoted Gasol spoke gracefully across the room about "not pointing fingers, owning up to our responsibilities, wanting to get out of this and having the pride necessary that it takes to utilize our talents and go beat the opponent – no matter who it is, no matter where we are."
If Howard was – as we all expected him to be – one of the top three players in the NBA, then you don't care so much who is the better team guy. The Lakers used to be good enough to win titles with Shaq and Kobe not getting along.
But Howard hasn't been that good – and hasn't updated his self-image to reflect the current state of his game or figure out how to help the team win. He had a reputation in Orlando for always blaming others, and his comments after this game about his shot total showed he's still operating from the same manual – even as he also spouted clichés about how "we've just got to find a way to stick together."
Gasol would never say so, but he has been banished to the bench also because Howard hasn't lived up to his end of the deal. The original concept for the twin towers finally working was that Howard was a far more athletic, active big man than Andrew Bynum, meaning Gasol's lesser athleticism and activity wouldn't be as problematic. As Howard has failed to be the above-the-rim freak – or even the high-motor defensive presence – that he was before April back surgery, a sore-legged Gasol has been left exposed and ridiculed.
O'Neal used to complain that the big dog had to fed if you wanted him to guard the yard. O'Neal used to offer cryptic complaints to reporters about the team needing "to play the right way" – the very same words Howard used late Monday night.
And O'Neal eventually got sent away from the Lakers because all the selfishness just didn't work anymore with Bryant, who certainly can be a handful himself but at least inspires teammates through his work ethic and will to win.
Both Bryant and Steve Nash have tried without success to sell Howard on just going hard – letting his limitations reveal themselves instead of conceding in advance. And the coach? Whereas Jackson has the stature and confidence to call out any player at any time, D'Antoni has been unwilling to criticize Howard – painfully aware that when D'Antoni tried to make Carmelo Anthony modify his attitude in New York last year, the Knicks swiftly chose the player over the coach. (As did the Orlando Magic, with Howard over Stan Van Gundy.)
The Lakers entered the season with zero intention of parting ways with Howard, but they would be fools not to be rethinking at this point. You can't ignore half a season of hard proof that Howard hasn't learned a thing about being a winner from all the very accomplished people around him in Lakerland.
As far as his free-agency power goes, Howard might not even know if he's coming or going – the same uncertainty and insecurity that enveloped Orlando.
He has indicated publicly he likes it here.
But leaving would jibe much more with the gimme-my-toy attitude where he only wants a team that will play his game, his way ... with his excuses.