LOS ANGELES — There were less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter Sunday and the Los Angeles Lakers were up by 16 over the Charlotte Hornets when Frank Vogel subbed Dwight Howard out, signaling the end of his night.
As Howard made his way to the bench with a smile plastered to his face after a nearly perfect night — he shot 8-for-8 from the field and had 16 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and a plus-minus of plus-23 in 23 minutes off the bench — the Staples Center crowd let him hear it.
The warm standing ovation for Howard near the end of the Lakers’ 120-101 win was far different than the derisive boos he became accustomed to as a visitor in the building as he cycled through five teams in six years before re-signing this summer for a second stint in L.A.
“I’m grateful,” Howard said. “I think myself and the fans have been through a lot together. But just to be back here, man, it means a lot. I just take it all in, every second, every moment on the court. It’s valuable. Hopefully the fans enjoy when we go out there and put everything on the line. I just try to bring that energy and that effort and that intensity every night — and have fun doing it.”
Howard was signed as part of a contingency plan after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a torn ACL in August. The Lakers also considered Joakim Noah and Mo Speights to fill the role. But Howard won the job with a major caveat: His contract would not be fully guaranteed until Jan. 7. If he didn’t click with the team early, the Lakers could easily cut bait and open the roster spot again.
Howard’s first impression in his second time around as a Laker, however, is making his place on the team seem secure.
“That’s why we brought him here,” LeBron James said. “While everyone else was writing him off, we felt like we could give him a great opportunity, and we believed in him. We believed his word, and he’s making the most of it, and we’re truly excited to have him here right now.”
For the second straight game, Vogel limited starting center JaVale McGee‘s role in trying to get his team going. The upstart Hornets led by as many as nine points in the first quarter before Howard saw some action, replacing McGee. On Friday, it was Anthony Davis shifting from the 4 to the 5 and McGee sitting the entire second half.
McGee said Howard “did a great job” and accepted the lineup shuffle in stride.
“It’s a winning mindset,” McGee said. “I feel like being selfish and worrying about certain aspects of things is a losing mindset. And I’m not a loser, so I don’t plan on having that mindset.”
Although McGee called his early season rebounding “atrocious” after he grabbed 10 through the first three games, the combination of Howard and McGee has shown enough promise that a full-time shift to Davis at the 5 could be unnecessary.
“They kind of keep me at the 4,” Davis said. “The way those guys have been playing, I don’t think it probably will change anytime soon.”
What has changed is Howard’s standing in the league since he played for the Lakers in 2012-13 and he, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were expected to lift the team back to a championship level before they fell on their faces.
“He was a star in his role tonight, and that’s what we’re asking him to be,” said Vogel, who added that Howard made a case to become the starting center with that game. “Not the superstar he was the first time around, but to be a role player and to be a star in the role, and tonight he was.”
Despite being 33 and having had multiple back surgeries, Howard brought his familiar brand of playful jokes and frenetic energy to the Lakers, as well as flashes of the skills that made him one of the best big men in the game for a decade.
“He dunks like that in practice every day like he’s 21 again,” Alex Caruso said.
For a player who was limited to nine games last season because of a lumbar microdiscectomy, that’s saying something.
“You don’t want to take anything for granted,” Howard said. “Surgeries. Missing games. Being out for seasons and stuff like that. Every moment that you have on the court is very valuable. Before I even had an opportunity to come to the Lakers, I just kept telling myself, ‘Wherever I’m at, whoever I’m playing for, when I step on the court, give 110 percent. Whether it’s for two minutes, 30 seconds, 15 minutes, just do whatever you can to help that team win.’
“I end up coming back to the best team, the best city in the world, so I’m very thankful.”