The Lakers tried really, really hard to make Dwight Howard comfortable during his one season in Los Angeles, and they did all they could to lure him back once he became eligible for free agency. A team doesn’t offer a player a more-than-maximum contract or construct giant billboards begging him to “Stay.” if it doesn’t like having him around.
Nevertheless, Lakers owner and executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss would like everyone to forget all of that. The Lakers never actually wanted Howard back all that much, according to Buss, and keeping Howard in purple and gold was not all that important because Howard was never a true Laker to begin with.
“He was never really a Laker,” Buss told Ric Bucher. “He was just passing through.”
The latter half of that statement may be true, but Howard was, in fact, “a Laker.” The team gave him a jersey and everything. He played the second-most games of anybody on the team, even while battling shoulder problems and coming back prematurely from offseason back surgery. Howard absolutely and literally was “a Laker.” If Buss needs a reminder, he can check out the luxury tax check he had to cut, in part, thanks to Howard’s $19.5 million salary.
Buss is merely expressing a sentiment common among fans, who judge athletes based on what they contributed to “their” teams. At the end of Jason Terry‘s abbreviated tenure in Boston, for instance, many fans on social media shrugged their shoulders and remarked that Terry never was a “true Celtic,” whatever that means. Terry, like Howard in Los Angeles, showed up to every Celtics practice, worked out at the team’s facility in Waltham, Mass., and started to find his clutch shooting stroke in the playoffs against the Knicks. He got the Celtics’ mascot tattooed on his arm, for crying out loud.
But reacting irrationally is the divine right of being a fan. It’s not the right, nor is it becoming, of a team executive for a franchise in L.A.’s position. The Busses have always worn their hearts on their sleeves — destructively, in some cases, though constructively in many cases involving Jeanie Buss — but in this instance, Buss’ little potshot at Howard says more about the state of the Lakers franchise than the departure of one hotly pursued free agent.
The Lakers are at a crossroads. They just lost out on the best free agent center on the market and their plan to build for the future revolves around LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony making the unlikely choice to bolt perfect situations for the Lakers, just because they are the Lakers, next summer. Still, James ticking off yet another city and bolting for the West Coast won’t be enough to make him a Laker — not “really” — in Buss’ eyes. It would take something more.
Whatever that is, apparently Howard didn’t do it. When Howard is racing up and down the floor with James Harden and Chandler Parsons next season, playing the Rockets’ entertaining brand of basketball and looking waaaay down on the Lakers in the standings, chances are he won’t lose any sleep over whether Buss wants to acknowledge that the 2012-13 season really did happen.