When Stan Van Gundy was fired as the Orlando Magic’s head coach back in May, most fingers were pointed at Dwight Howard. Despite their awkward break up in Orlando, the LA Times’ Ben Bloch reports that the two are now getting along just fine.
Van Gundy and Howard regularly exchange friendly text messages, in which the two discuss Howard’s play and his progression in recovering from back surgery. Not only has Howard discussed his own play with Van Gundy, but he has also passed along a few thoughts about the Lakers’ shortcomings:
“The only thing he’s really gotten into was,” Van Gundy said, “He wants their defense to be better.”
Van Gundy took over the Magic coaching position in 2007 and led the Magic to five straight playoff appearances. The main reason for their constant success was Howard’s development into an elite NBA center.
The ex-Magic head coach saw Howard grow from a young blossoming player, into the 3-time Defensive Player of the Year. Predicated on defense, Van Gundy’s system played a large part in molding Howard into the tenacious defender he became.
Now, however, 8 months removed from having surgery to repair a herniated disk, Howard still lacks the same explosion Van Gundy saw in Orlando:
“I don’t think he looks quite as explosive or as quick as he has in the past,” said Van Gundy, “Now, he’s still above almost everyone in the league at that size athletically, but he has not totally looked like himself to me.”
In Orlando, Howard was certainly the league’s best center; in part due to the dying breed of elite NBA centers but also due to Howard’s superior athletic ability. Howard has had a decent start to this season as a Laker, averaging 17.6 points per game on 57.2% shooting, 11.8 rebounds per game, and 2.5 blocks per game.
These averages are very close to his career averages, but the same explosion and defensive prowess he has displayed in the past has clearly been lacking, thus far. Howard claims that his timing and conditioning are still an issue, which have taken longer to regain because of the surgery. Just a week ago, Howard explained that he is sometimes unable to even feel his feet because of the still redeveloping nerves:
“Tingling in my legs all the way down to my feet,” Howard said as he described his current state. “There’s times when sometimes I really can’t even feel my feet. [The doctors] said that’s going to happen. It takes at least nine months for you to get strength back in your legs and all that stuff. So I’m still in that process.”
As Howard explains, his recovery is still a slow and steady “process”. The main concern for Laker fans should be Howard’s health, but Van Gundy also added that the change in Howard’s offensive role has taken an adjustment period as well:
“It’s a big adjustment for him, going from being the guy to not only being the No. 2 guy but really a No. 2 guy that really doesn’t get the ball very much at all,” Van Gundy said. “It’s a different deal and an adjustment he has to make. Those kind of things take time.”
Despite this need to adjust, Van Gundy believes the six-time NBA All-Star can make that sacrifice, to both his role and ego, in the name of an NBA championship:
“I think Dwight is going to be more than willing to make the adjustment,” Van Gundy said, “but it’s still an adjustment and it takes time mentally too because your ego — and ego is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing, you need it to be great in this league — tells you that you’re supposed to be the man and having to adjust to playing off somebody else is not an easy thing.”
Even though Howard and Van Gundy’s relationship ended on a sour note in Orlando, Van Gundy still holds great admiration for the center. Van Gundy also appreciates what Howard has done for his own coaching career and the contributions he made to both the Magic and the city of Orlando:
“Dwight and my time in Orlando, I thought the relationship was good, worked well, produced results and that’s what player-coach relationships in this league should be about, are the results that they get and the results here were good, mainly because Dwight’s as good as he is. He’s a great, great player and I have a great appreciation for what he did for our teams and for me as a coach.”
Since Van Gundy admires and still believes in Howard, he sees a potential championship run on the horizon. Van Gundy, just like Howard, continues to preach patience and keeps reserved faith in Howard returning to elite-status:
“I think he’s getting ready to have a great year and you’ve got to have some patience, which is not a thing that fans really have in abundance and I understand that,” Van Gundy said. “I think if [the Lakers] can stay healthy, by late January you’ll have a pretty good indication of whether or not things are working.”
Just as Van Gundy explains, patience is key for this Lakers team. Unlike Lakers teams in the past, this team was relatively thrown together in a matter of months. Now, with a brand new culmination of players, a new system and coach in Mike D’Antoni, the key will be both health and synergy come playoff time.
If Howard can continue progressing well in his recovery back to full strength, and the rest of the team stays healthy, the Lakers certainly have the talent to surpass their current 8th place seed in the Western Conference.
Although Howard has shown flashes of dominance at times this season, it is clear that he is still not back to the same player he once was. With 52 games remaining, Van Gundy’s text messages could be key in pushing Howard back to consistent dominance and propelling the Lakers towards a 17th NBA title.