All season, Dwight Howard has been on a redemption tour with the Lakers, signing a one-year deal for the veterans’ minimum with the team back in August. The move was tinged with a bit of desperation on both sides, the Lakers eager to cobble together some depth with limited available resources and Howard eager to resuscitate a career that appeared to be all but over.
Howard is 34 and played only nine games last season in Washington, hampered by back surgery and a hamstring problem. He was not ready to retire but, it seemed, he might have retirement forced upon him.
Instead, he got the opportunity with the Lakers and has made the most of it. Howard is averaging 7.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks off the bench for L.A., shooting 72.2 percent from the field. He has been rejuvenated and will even be in the dunk contest at All-Star weekend this year. He competed in the contest three times in his career, from 2007-09.
Of course, Howard’s first stint in Los Angeles didn’t go well—he was with the Lakers in 2012-13, failed to mesh with star guard Kobe Bryant or coach Mike D’Antoni and bolted in free agency that summer. But he’s rediscovered his joy for the game this time around with the Lakers.
“I’m just grateful,” Howard told reporters after he recorded a 21-point, 15-rebound double-double two weeks ago. “I don’t look at the stat sheet. I don’t look at anything. I’m just happy to be out there playing basketball. Playing here in LA has been such a blessing for me and I cherish every single moment. So when I’m out there on the floor, can’t do nothing but give 135 percent and have fun in the process.”
Dwight Howard Will be a Free Agent This Summer
Howard’s career has bounced back and he says he is focused on the present. He has been especially effective lately, averaging 10.9 points and 12.7 rebounds in his last seven games. That works out to 25.0 rebounds per 48 minutes, best in the NBA in that span.
But his future now has far more possibilities than it did a year ago. Howard signed a one-year deal with the Lakers that became guaranteed on January 10. He will be a free agent in July and the Lakers have no special advantages in re-signing him.
“I am very happy here,” Howard said of L.A. “I like being here, I am having fun being here. I don’t know what is going to happen in the future but I know I can’t think about that or focus on it. I am just focused on being here.”
Howard has earned a chance to stick with the Lakers, but the question would become, how much are the Lakers willing to pay out for him? Howard surely won’t be available for the veterans’ minimum next summer.
According to one NBA front-office executive, Howard has played well enough this season to early, “a good part,” of a team’s mid-level exception. The exception is expected to be worth $9.7 million and if Howard can command a deal at about $7 million, he would either chew up most of their limited cap space or take the bulk of the Lakers’ mid-level exception.
L.A. will have to pay Anthony Davis next summer in free agency and he figures to get a raise from $27 million this year to $35 million next year. The Lakers’ books are not in bad shape and likely will be under the cap even when they re-sign Davis. That depends, in part, on decisions from players with contract options (Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope).
Even if both players opt out and sign elsewhere, the Lakers would have to determine how much of their cap space and exception they’d be willing to give to Howard.
How Long Can Dwight Howard Keep Playing?
That’s if Howard wants to continue playing. He has looked as healthy and happy as he has been in a long time during this season with the Lakers but considering his age and injury history, there might be some allure in going out on top—especially if he can help the Lakers to a championship.
Howard did say, back in 2017, that he nearly retired after his second year with the Rockets, in 2014-15, when a knee injury sapped him of his effectiveness on the defensive end. He was only 29 and Houston reached the conference finals that year but he played just 41 games. “The joy was sucked out of it,” he told Sports Illustrated.
Two years ago, Howard said he planned to play into his 40s, that he would be in the NBA another eight years. Then again, he made that assertion during his introductory press conference with the Wizards, at which he also said, “For the rest of my career here, and I plan to be here until I retire, it’s about this team. It’s about us winning.”
Take all that for what it’s worth, then.
For now, Howard is thriving. He’s not thinking about free agency or this summer or retirement. “Just the next game,” he said. “Just thinking about how I can help this team win.”
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