LAKERS’ ROLE PLAYERS FINDING NICHES, SCRIPTING STORIES
Dwight Howard sits in front of his locker at Staples Center, the same spot in the same room he temporarily resided seven years ago. Purple and gold are again the colors on his sneakers, and to Howard’s great credit, no one thinks that is strange the way so many did just a few months ago.
And that’s because Howard’s story is not about the past.
The big picture that Howard actually has a Hall of Fame-worthy past makes this present all the more remarkable.
“He’s accepted his role,” LeBron James said, “and he’s thrived in it.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel has referred to Howard as a “star in his role” countless times in Howard’s return Lakers season. The reference itself is not new, but it’s particularly apt for Howard, an eight-time All-Star who is now an unequivocal inspiration as a supporting-cast member behind James and Anthony Davis.
As Howard sits there, he sums up his mindset after playing only nine games because of a back injury last season and being unsigned till almost September:
“Take advantage of every moment I have to play the game.”
It really is that basic a choice. Either you rue that you don’t have more moments or better moments or the moments you are used to … or you maximize the moments that you get.
It’s a healthy life lesson for anyone, but it’s the backbone of the role player’s body of work:
Make the most of the moments and approach them with enthusiasm and commitment, and you have a chance to give the team what it needs from you when it needs it. If a role player wallows in the negative of what he doesn’t get to do, it becomes awfully hard to give the team the sort of positive energy that Howard and other Lakers have this season.
Howard’s tag-team partner at the center spot, JaVale McGee, could talk all day about the all-around skills he has (“I practice everything”) and how he can showcase those during open-gym runs in the summer. But speaking as someone who was a role player on the 2017 and ’18 NBA champion Golden State Warriors, McGee has a firm understanding now of giving the Lakers his tightly focused best.
“My role in games during the season is to get the dunk (spot), block shots and help the team win,” he said.
As far as the entire Lakers supporting cast goes, McGee said: “We’re not worried about anybody else’s stats or our own stats. We’re just trying to go out there and play the right way—and we win.”
No Lakers player has previously worn this peculiar No. 39. The individual digits add up to Howard’s familiar No. 12, reminiscent of how Dennis Rodman chose the peculiar No. 91—those digits adding up to his familiar No. 10—upon joining Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 1995.
No Bulls player had ever worn No. 91 either, but when Rodman arrived in Chicago, he set a new standard for maximizing his moment. Howard is now trying to do something similar with the Lakers as a rebounding machine in search of his first title.
Even before Howard delivered 13, 14, 15 and 16 rebounds in four of the past five games, he has consistently offered energy, screens, defense and dunks to the Lakers. In his 16th NBA season, Howard has been free to go all-out throughout every game because he’s logging fewer than 20 minutes per game with McGee producing, too.
Both Howard and McGee have done a little extra during this recent stretch with Davis and Rajon Rondo injured, and the Lakers have learned a lot of encouraging things about their depth in this time. Jared Dudley, Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels have especially stepped forward lately despite getting limited run this season.
It might be surprising that a team with James and Davis could be calling itself “15 deep,” as Dudley has lately, as opposed to top-heavy. But the other Lakers have been making a legit case.
“It helps the star players to know, ‘Hey, we’re not here by ourselves,’ “ Dudley said. “It don’t have to be just LeBron and A.D. It’s LeBron, A.D., and the Los Angeles Lakers.”
Howard and Alex Caruso have gotten a lot of notice in their roles this season, and Avery Bradley was heralded early in the season as a defensive tone-setter. Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma had already built high profiles coming into the season. But overall, the role players have started to forge clearer individual identities, which is how it works when the team wins and everyone is linked with that success. Seeing Derek Fisher and Robert Horry in the TV studio on Lakers broadcasts today is an ongoing testament to that.
And it’s fun to consider how the career arcs of these guys will be viewed differently if they help bring the Lakers back to a championship greatness.
The perception of McGee dramatically changed once he gained credibility as a winner with the Warriors, and Green’s role as a three-and-D guy on title teams in San Antonio and Toronto is why Dudley refers to him with two words and not one: “proven champion.”
Dudley openly admits he joined the Lakers in hopes of winning and building his resume for life after basketball. Howard’s redemption story would ratchet up to the highest of levels. Caruso would go from cult hero to absolute legend.
In just the success the Lakers have had to start the regular season, we’ve already seen heightened appreciation for what Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is doing in his role. A holdover from Lakers teams the past two years that didn’t win, Caldwell-Pope has persevered.
“He had a little bit of a rough start there offensively, and there was an overreaction from the public,” Vogel said. “But he plays extremely hard on both ends of the floor. That impacts winning. To see him finally get going after that initial stretch and being more of a leader with his three-point percentage, he’s just giving us exceptional play on both sides of the ball.”
Who knows which ones of them will have what kind of moments during the playoff run to come this spring? Someone is probably going to sink three three-pointers in the second half of some big game. Someone else is probably going to save the day by blocking a key shot or taking a clutch charge.
As impossible as the truly iconic images are to envision, someone might even do what Horry did or what Fisher did.
And that’s inspiring to contemplate in the same way that entrepreneurs are more intriguing than Fortune 500 CEOs. Ultimately, it will never be breaking news if LeBron and A.D. play well.
“I’ve been through playoff series where injuries have happened,” James said. “I’ve been through playoff series where one of the guys that you count on maybe just is struggling a little bit. And you need to be able to count on someone to come in and give a spark.”
Dudley had never worn No. 10 until choosing it this season. It works as a reminder of Dudley’s close friend and former teammate Steve Nash—who wore No. 10 with the Lakers, arriving at the same time Howard did in 2012, with championship dreams that went unfulfilled.
The closest both Dudley and Nash came to a title was when their Phoenix team lost to the Lakers in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. Dudley, however, is ready to rank this Lakers team above that Phoenix group for “best chemistry I’ve had on a team.”
“We actually genuinely like each other,” Dudley said. “We’ve had no beefs or hiccups. And that’s very unique even for good teams.”
For his part, Dudley is described by James as “one of the best teammates I’ve had,” which is about as good of a performance review as a role player can get in the category of locker-room connector.
For the Lakers, the roles may be vastly different whether guys are asked to space the floor for the stars or catch lobs from them—but everyone has the additional job description of being a team player in the traditional office checklist: collaborate, communicate and stay committed to the cause.
Howard wearing that “Carushow” hoodie Wednesday night was just the latest example of how the Lakers can be role models.
“We enjoy playing basketball with each other; we enjoy watching each other thrive,” Howard said. “When you have a team full of brothers who enjoy picking their brother up and seeing them thrive and seeing them be the best version of themselves, it just makes the team chemistry and team morale and everything boosted.”
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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