Superman Returns to La La Land
Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Every superhero has a good comeback story lying somewhere along their character arc. Bruce Wayne's parents died, and he became the Batman. Michael Jordan came out of retirement for a three-peat. And now, for Dwight Howard (AKA Superman), his own comeback story is unfolding in the same place it all went downhill: Laker Land.
The Lakers signed Howard on a prove-it deal this offseason following the devastating news of DeMarcus Cousins' ACL injury. After bouncing around the league for the past half-decade (seriously, the Lakers are Dwight's fifth team in five years), general manager Rob Pelinka was not about to risk an expectation-loaded season on the antics of an aging and supposedly unwanted big man. So, he was given a summer deal, and a stern talking-to about his limited role on the team.
Howard, in the fewest minutes of his career (20.4 minutes per game), has been nothing short of remarkable. He sports a Net Rating of +13.6, which means that the Lakers are basically blowing teams out while he's on the court.
He is once again a defensive anchor for L.A. in the paint, swatting shots at near-peak level (2.8 blocks per 36 minutes played, just short of a career-high); remember, Dwight has won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. That player is showing up again, this time wearing Purple and Gold, and the Lakers could not be happier. Mike Tuck of Sky Sports has even gone as far as to say that Dwight is a serious contender for the NBA's Most Improved Player award in his age-34 season.
Yes, this marriage is working out rather well indeed. After 11 games, the Lakers are 9-2, having just defeated the injury-plagued Golden State Warriors on a night where Dwight once again shone (putting up 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists in 20 minutes), while Anthony Davis took a much-needed breather. Howard may not be carrying the Lakers offensively or putting up terrific, eye-popping numbers (except for his career-high 76.2% field-goal efficiency, and maybe his career-low 1.0 turnovers per game), but he is definitely appreciated by his teammates and coaching staff.
Despite having a history of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, Howard's jubilant demeanour seems to be rubbing off rather nicely on his Lakers teammates, leading to many bench embraces and roster-wide high-five sessions. More so than ever before, Dwight seems to recognize his on and off-court role, and is relishing the opportunity to contend for a title on a loaded roster.
The season is still young, and while there are plenty of opportunities remaining for Dwight to, well, Dwight things up, one gets the feeling that this won't be that kind of year for D39. It's a new (old?) team, new jersey number, new teammates, and most importantly: a new challenge.
This author believes that the reason for this resurgence from Superman is none other than the Lakers all-out, balls-to-the-wall championship pursuit, and the franchise's take-no-prisoners approach to both ends of the court this season. The environments of his past NBA pit-stops were far less motivating (read: worse) and generally had much lower expectations for their season outcomes (we're talking the Hornets, Wizards, and Hawks here, people).
The Lakers will give Howard no quarter. And he will ask for no quarter. Dwight is Superman after all, and this time, there's no kryptonite in sight.