Kupchak Has Howard's Back "100 Percent"
With all that's gone awry in an exercise of Murphy's Law for the 2012-13 Lakers, longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak wants to make one thing crystal clear: it's not all Dwight Howard's fault.
"Dwight has been catching a lot of criticism, and quite frankly all of our players aren't very happy and everybody is catching criticism – when you're losing, that's what happens," he explained. "But Dwight may be getting more than his fair share."
There's no argument that Howard has played his best, or even hardest, basketball consistently this season. His struggles have played a part in the 27-29 record for a team with title aspirations. Yet after 10 Lakers wins in 14 games, the season isn't over, and Howard can play as big a role as anybody.
Speaking to Lakers.com after L.A.'s 111-107 final-minute victory over Portland, Kupchak offered further explanation.
"People forget it's been only 10 months since Dwight had major back surgery, he's been traded, he injured a (right) shoulder that may require offseason surgery," Kupchak said, adding that Howard had to learn two new systems in just over five weeks under Mike Brown and then Mike D'Antoni.
Rocky, indeed, particularly with Steve Nash (24 games missed), Pau Gasol (20 and counting) and Steve Blake (37) alternately on the shelf.
In 50 starts for the purple and gold, Howard is averaging 16.5 points, his lowest since his second season in 2005-06, on 58.1 percent shooting, just above his career average of 57.8. He's grabbing 11.9 rebounds, his lowest since his rookie year, yet still the most in the NBA, and swatting 2.3 shots (career average: 2.2) per game.
Howard has conceded that his energy and effort hasn’t been consistent all season, but that hasn't changed a simple fact in the mind of his boss.
"He's the best center in the NBA," Kupchak opined. "The criticism, to me, is unwarranted and he should know – and I think he does – that we support him 100 percent."
Kupchak has been Howard's biggest supporter while the center's taking his share of heat.
In the two games after the All-Star break, Howard responded to that backing like this: 21.5 points per game on 17 of 27 FG's (63 percent) with 14.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals in 34 minutes per game, while setting much-improved screens and actively patrolling the paint on D.
"I will say that in the games against Boston and Portland, whether the rest helped him in Houston or for whatever other reason, he's playing with a lot of energy, rebounding, defending, blocking shots and running the floor," said Kupchak. "I'm hoping that's a byproduct of either the rest, the support from the organization or whatever it may be."
Kobe Bryant didn't need many words to sum up Howard's play, suggesting that he was "extremely impressed" with his center's "fantastic" play in the last two games, mindful that Howard also played the second half against Portland through shoulder pain caused by a tweak of his torn labrum just before halftime. Steve Nash was equally pleased, noting how much better Howard's been in freeing his point guard for pick-and-roll opportunities that were, frankly, below standard as they struggled to get on the same offensive page.
Howard's actions on the court will always take precedence, but he added a positive verbal response, taking increased responsibility for his effort.
"I think it starts with me," the 7-time All-Star said post Portland. "I have to really come out every night with the same intensity and same effort … I have to do a better job of playing hard and I’m going to try.
"We want to make the playoffs. That’s our goal and we feel like we can, do something special and make history. I just understand how important it is for me to just really bring energy."
That's music to the ears of Bryant and Nash, to Mike D'Antoni and the rest of the locker room. Positive evidence came against Portland when the 3-time Defensive POY continued to work despite lacking full leg strength. He twice went up for alley-oops and didn't get high enough – not something you'd have seen before his back injury – but found other ways to get the job done.
He has a believer in his GM, who didn't even think about trading him despite growing public chatter on the topic considering that Howard will be a free agent after the season. Incidentally, league rules prohibit the Lakers from discussing what will come next season with a free agent, and that hasn't changed since the moment Kupchak and Jim Buss traded for Howard.
"When you have a player like that, why would you consider trading him?" Kupchak asked. "We're losing a lot of games, but it's no fault of him alone. Ownership and management made a coaching change – that wasn't due to Dwight, Kobe, Steve or anybody. We did that. Something like that takes time for players to adjust to."Again, we are behind Dwight 100 percent."
To the benefit of the whole organization, Howard appears to have noticed.