ABSENCE LAST SEASON MADE MANY LAKERS FONDER NOW
“Sharpening the (knives) daily for battles coming in the near future. #WashedKing” — LeBron James’ @KingJames Instagram, Aug. 28
Silver linings were hard to find when LeBron James got hurt and changed the course the Lakers’ 2018-19 season. A workhorse for the entirety of his career, James had to accept something very different just two months into his Lakers tenure. But his groin injury happened, and the team’s fortunes took the ensuing turn everyone would expect.
Even worse, the injury prompted outside speculation that the Lakers had gotten LeBron on the decline, perhaps even soon to be washed-up considering all the minutes he has logged. Slights, both real and perceived, always drive the greats, though.
As much as James never would’ve wished to go down last Christmas and miss 27 games plus a playoff berth, now we see the good tidings he and that misfortune bring.
The layoff has refreshed and further motivated James for his second Lakers season. Upon posting his third consecutive triple-double Tuesday in driving the Lakers to a league-best 6-1 start, James brought back the #WashedKing reference—in full mockery—on his @KingJames Twitter account. James, who turns 35 next month, is reveling in his revival.
“I’m playing injury-free,” he said. “I’m not injured. My quick twitch is back. My speed is back. My strength is back.”
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel acknowledges that the team, with a new coaching staff and more than half the roster shuffled for this season, is further along at this point than he could’ve fairly expected with its defensive cohesion. Its depth hasn’t even been fully there either, as Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo have been sidelined by injuries. The chemistry obviously can’t be as advanced as for other teams with more experience together.
But the motivation to make the most of every day has been at a league-leading level. Much of that can be traced back to James setting his tone. Even though he more than anyone knows what a marathon it is to the NBA Finals, James and his rejuvenation have been a fountain for everyone to drink from—teammates, coaches and fans alike.
And the truth is that it has carried so swiftly throughout the team because others have brought the same mindset of appreciating being out there. Several Lakers—even head coach Frank Vogel, who spent a year on sabbatical, visiting college and pro teams and learning about basketball more than teaching it—are embracing their own opportunity after not getting it last season.
The lesson is that absence makes the heart grow fonder in all relationships in life. The Lakers are now seeing how it works for guys with love and basketball.
“Sometimes we don’t realize how much we love the game and miss the game until that window starts closing or it’s closed. Then you’re like, ‘Oh, damn, I really miss playing the game. I want another opportunity to show what I can do.’ Sometimes you don’t know if that opportunity will ever come again. For him, I really believe he’s appreciative of the opportunity, and I think he’s going to make a hell of an impact because of the new appreciation he has for playing the game.” — Kobe Bryant on Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Times last month
Isn’t it ironic, most have asked, that Dwight Howard could have such a positive impact with the Lakers now after it didn’t work out the first time? This indeed could be a redemption story for both Howard and the Lakers franchise that invested so much in 2012 in acquiring him. What a twist it would be if the path to the Lakers’ first post-Kobe Bryant championship actually includes Howard on the team.
That said, Howard’s positive impact has much less to do with the Hollywood sign in the landscape background than one would think.
Would any gym have done? Perhaps not. And of course it helps to be in a winning situation and win over these fans. Yet Howard fundamentally was ready to make the most of any opportunity he was given after playing merely nine NBA games last season.
“I told myself whenever I get back on the court,” Howard said, “I was going to do whatever I can to get in the best shape of my life.”
This is the motivation behind Howard’s hustle and happiness every second he’s on the floor—and even when he’s on the bench leading the cheers or talking strategy with the other vets.
Howard had mysterious discomfort early last season that wound up being solved only when he had spinal surgery for the herniated disc causing nerve irritation and gluteal pain. The lumbar microdiscectomy on Nov. 30 that wound up ending Howard’s one season with the Washington Wizards was performed by Robert Watkins in Marina del Rey … perhaps a familiar refrain to Lakers fans considering the very same doctor did a similar procedure on Howard in 2012 before he was traded to the Lakers.
But this was a different rehab at a different point in the career of a potential Hall of Fame player now willing to play a very different role on the court.
“I know defense is where I made my mark in this league,” Howard said, “so I wanted to come back and just play as hard as I can on the defensive end.”
Howard is playing hard in every way, full of energy after shoring up his diet and conditioning. That bounce makes it easy to apply his genius-level rebounding technique—as does the fun fact that Anthony Davis is often double-teamed next to him, leaving a mismatch or even no one at all to contest Howard. That’s the no-brainer reasoning why his stellar offensive rebounding percentage—seventh in the league among players averaging at least 20 minutes—is fully sustainable.
“I don’t see it as a role; I see it as my purpose,” Howard said. “I think it’s my purpose to go out every single night and play hard defense, trying to block every shot, trying to be in the paint, get a lot of steals, go for loose balls. Whatever I can do for this team, be of service, that’s my mission. I don’t see it as my role, I see it as a purpose.”
Howard is absolutely inspiring legions of Lakers followers with devout play. He has looked much more like a purposeful player more than a role player.
To borrow a phrase from Lakers superfan Snoop Dogg, welcome to the chuuch, Dwight.
“That was definitely the toughest part. Obviously I want to play the game of basketball. … But any time you take something away from a player, it’s always tough to handle.” — Anthony Davis in April about limited playing time last season with the New Orleans Pelicans
Some folks on the Lakers’ staff were surprised by how eager Davis was to play 5-on-5 in training camp—to the point that he was laughingly told to save some of his stuff for the real season. He also pushed to play through injuries in the preseason when other superstars around the league were looking for reasons to rest.
Davis’ noticeable drive this season is about much more than what he didn’t get to do last season: He has a superstar partner in James for the first time in his career. He is on a new team for the first time since he entered the league. He is seeking his first NBA championship.
Still, it’s true that Davis arrived with a basic itch to scratch. He played only 56 games last season after appearing in 75 each of his prior two seasons. Before he played 37 minutes on opening night for the Lakers, the last time Davis played more than 34 minutes in a game was more than nine months ago (Jan. 18).
That’s why he spoke on Media Day before Lakers training camp about how eager he was just to play some basketball. That hunger has translated into a forceful start for both the team and the latest NBA Western Conference Player of the Week whose week began with a 40-point, 20-rebound domination against Memphis.
But even that Memphis game was a come-from-behind victory, same as recent victories in Dallas and Chicago. The Lakers haven’t just been winning; they’ve been winning with willpower. That’s a reflection of players who, again, are treasuring all of their time on the court. And it’s interesting who was one of the players in Davis’ ear Tuesday in Chicago about looking forward to a time to come later in the game for Davis to make his best mark: DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins signed with the Lakers in July. He tore his ACL in August, the latest in a series of serious injuries for Cousins. His mere presence on this team is a reminder how others should value their opportunities on the court. It’s particularly inescapable for Howard, who was added to the roster only after Cousins got hurt.
The misfortune for Cousins especially resonates with Davis, however, because of how close they became during their time together in New Orleans.
“I was shocked just knowing that he worked so hard to get back from his quad and his Achilles,” Davis said. “He hasn’t really had the opportunity to be the old DeMarcus. And he really wanted this year to be the year because he felt he was very healthy—and the ACL happened.”
Seeing Cousins idling this season, suffering more bad luck upon bad luck instead of better fortune, is a cautionary tale for all those around him. If you’re impressed by how James is playing defense this season, consider how thrilled he is just to be able to play defense this season.
“Playing with a torn groin last year—-even when I came back it was still partially torn—it was difficult to be able to move and shift like I’m capable of doing defensively,” James said.
Vogel is certainly renewed from his year off after he had only nine days between being fired in Indiana and hired in Orlando. On Vogel’s staff, Jason Kidd hadn’t coached since January 2018, and Lionel Hollins hadn’t coached since January 2016.
There is heightened appreciation on this Lakers team just because so many veterans have healthy perspectives on why they are here: They value the chance to be on a championship-caliber team, knowing how many around the league do not have that luxury.
But the power of gratitude runs deeper than that with this group, especially when the common thread is so strong between team leaders LeBron and A.D.—both so committed to treasuring simple health and basic time. It starts with that, even ahead of embracing this wonderful new championship opportunity together.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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