Hakeem Olajuwon is sticking with his belief that Dwight Howard will re-sign this summer with the Los Angeles Lakers. If Howard is thinking differently, Olajuwon figures Howard will let him know.
In a phone interview with Fox Sports Florida, Olajuwon, a Hall of Fame center, said Howard told him in the summer of 2011 that he wanted out of Orlando after eight seasons primarily due to how he was being used by then-Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, and that he wanted to end up with the Lakers.
That, of course, is what eventually happened. Howard, who asked to be traded, was dealt last August to the Lakers. But things haven’t turned out well. The center has struggled at times while recovering from back surgery and has missed six games in the past month due to shoulder injury.
The Lakers are just 23-27 and in jeopardy of missing the playoffs, especially after having just lost forward Pau Gasol for at least six weeks due to a foot injury. They play at Miami on Sunday, when Howard is expected to make his first Florida appearance since leaving the Magic.
Olajuwon, who is close to Howard and had extended workouts with him during the summers of 2010 and 2011 at Olajuwon’s ranch outside Houston, has spent most of this season in Amman, Jordan. But Olajuwon, who splits his time between Jordan and Texas, will be at All-Star Weekend Feb. 15-17 in Houston, where he plans to meet with Howard, a starter for the Western Conference.
“I want to catch up and see how (Howard) really feels,” said Olajuwon, the greatest player in Rockets history, who will serve as a judge for the NBA’s Feb. 16 dunk contest and be honored at the Feb. 17 Legends Brunch. “My first concept is to make him feel comfortable… The key is to make him comfortable so that he can open up and I know what the issues are (that concern Howard).”
Olajuwon, with his tremendous knowledge of basketball and his calming influence, has developed close relationships since his 2002 retirement with a number of NBA stars. Five other All-Stars (Bryant, LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Brook Lopez) have worked out with Olajuwon in recent years.
Howard has been noncommittal when talking to the media. But until he hears otherwise, Olajuwon believes Howard will re-sign with the Lakers when he becomes a free agent this summer.
“I think so,” Olajuwon said. “I think so. Because that is where he wanted to be. He wanted to go there.”
Olajuwon said that when the two worked out in the summer of 2011, Howard told him he wanted to end up with the Lakers. At that time, Howard had one year left on his contract and an opt-out clause for 2012-13. In a controversial move, Howard eventually did not opt out.
“He loves L.A.,” Olajuwon said of what Howard told him in 2011 and what he has no reason to no longer believe. “He feels like it’s a great chance for him to win a championship, and he wants to be another great center for the Lakers of the future. He thought it was the best fit for him personally. He came to us (in 2011 with one of his representatives to Olajuwon’s ranch outside Houston) and they already thought that should be the destination.”
Olajuwon eventually asked to be traded from the Magic and named the Lakers, Nets and Mavericks as preferred destinations. When reports surfaced that Howard’s first choice was the Nets, Olajuwon put little stock in that since Howard only had spoken to him about wanting to go to the Lakers.
“That was a surprise,” Olajuwon said of the Nets. “I don’t know where that came from. He was very focused on knowing he wanted to go to the Lakers.”
However, Van Gundy disputes that Howard had sought all along to go the Lakers.
“Well, that definitely wasn’t the place that he was demanding to go to first,” Van Gundy said by phone.
Asked what team had been tops on Howard’s list and whether it was the Nets, Van Gundy said, “I’m not going to get into that.”
Van Gundy, though, didn’t dispute Olajuwon saying Howard’s primary reason for wanting out of Orlando was frustration with his role under Van Gundy.
“In Orlando, he more or less was fed up with the coach,” Olajuwon said of what Howard told him in 2011. “It was more of an issue where he didn’t feel like (Van Gundy) was using him in the right way. … Remember, if you have an inside player, you got to go to him. Any coach that has a post player that commands a double- or triple-team must maximize that position because that position will give you other options. Just going to him, you create opportunities outside and inside.
“He was more clashing with the coach for not using him correctly. … There were frustrations. Any player would be frustrated when he feels that he can offer more than what he feels like the coach is making him do, and he can run up and down the court four or five times before you touch the ball.”
While Van Gundy acknowledges Howard felt frustration, he believes he properly utilized Howard while coaching him from 2007-12.
“In his mind, that was something that he was not happy about, but I thought we utilized him correctly,” said Van Gundy, who led the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals, where they lost 4-1 to the Lakers. “I thought we achieved tremendous success for him and for the team and we played at an extremely high level.
“That doesn’t mean that he’s not entitled to his feelings that he would have liked to have done more on the offensive end of the floor. I certainly wouldn’t want my best player to not have that feeling that he wanted to do more. But I think it bears out that he had tremendous success. He had great numbers.”
In each of his five seasons under Van Gundy, Howard was named the center on the All-NBA first team. He four times led the NBA in rebounding and twice in blocks.
Despite Olajuwon saying Howard was frustrated at being regarded in Orlando more as a guy to rebound and block shots, he averaged as many as 22.9 points in a season. He would have averaged even more had he not shot less than 60 percent from the free-throw line in each of his seasons under Van Gundy, including last year being under 50 percent.
Van Gundy came out last April and said Howard wanted him fired, something that would happen in May. But if there was so much friction leading up to that between Howard and Van Gundy, then why did Howard, in a move to stave off immediately being traded, decide last March not to invoke the option on his contract?
“He loved Orlando and he loved the people and he loved the crowd,” Olajuwon said of Howard then putting off free agency from 2012 to 2013. “It was more he didn’t want to face the consequences of betrayal of the fans (if he left as a free agent). He truly loved the city of Orlando.”
Howard is scheduled to make his only Orlando appearance of the season March 12. Nobody figures fans at the Amway Center will show much love that night for him.
“I’m sure it will be like LeBron when he went back to Cleveland,” said Olajuwon, referring to James’ hostile reception in December 2010 after he had bolted from the Cavaliers to the Heat. “But after a couple of seasons, I’m sure it will die down.”
While Olajuwon said Howard in 2011 named Van Gundy as his primary frustration in Orlando, he said he provided other reasons for wanting out. He said Howard didn’t like the moves the Magic had made in trying to get better in the years following their 2009 Finals appearance and was he intrigued by seeing teams of stars being formed in the NBA, most notably the Heat with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“He thought other teams were getting collections of superstars joining together and Orlando was making all these trades but not really improving their team,” Olajuwon said. “He didn’t seem like they were able to compete for a championship with all those players that they got. They weren’t going in the right direction and improving that team.”
The moves included acquiring Vince Carter from New Jersey and later dealing him to Phoenix and shipping Rashard Lewis to Washington in a deal that brought in Gilbert Arenas, who was later waived under the NBA’s amnesty rule.
Olajuwon, though, said Howard got what he wanted when he was sent to the Lakers last August in a four-team deal that also included Denver and Philadelphia. But the trade hasn’t been the boon that was expected by the Lakers, who also had acquired point guard Steve Nash last summer from Phoenix.
Having spent much of the season in Jordan, Olajuwon said he’s only watched two full Lakers games on television. But he’s also viewed plenty of highlights, and has had no problem seeing Howard being slow in his recovery from back surgery. Howard is averaging 16.3 points and 11.8 rebounds, down from 20.6 and 14.5 last season.
“During the offseason, he didn’t get a chance to play basketball and that’s when you work on your conditioning,” said Olajuwon, who believes Howard’s recent shoulder injury is much less of a concern than his back situation. “And then he missed (most of) the preseason and to come right into a situation where there were a lot of expectations right away. So it was a tough position for him right away.
“It takes time to fully recover (from back surgery). I see sometimes that he’s very comfortable and agile but sometimes you see the timing and the delay and he’s not as reactive. And I believe that’s part of the recovery period. That will take time.”
As for time to decide whether or not Howard wants to re-sign with the Lakers, that’s starting to run out. There are just 32 games left in the season if they don’t make the playoffs.
But Olajuwon remains optimistic Howard wants to stay longterm where he said he had wanted to play. Olajuwon will find out during All-Star Weekend if Howard tells him something different.