No more goofing around, Dwight

No more goofing around, Dwight

Published Aug. 15, 2012 12:05 p.m. ET

OK, Dwight Howard. You’ve finally done it.  

You’ve muscled your way from Orlando to Los Angeles, forcing the Magic to accept an inferior deal and bankrupt themselves of all their talent in order to get you off their hands.  

You’ve also seen your once-pristine public persona take a devastating blow as a result of your various antics – which include, but are not limited to, having a beloved coach fired; influencing a former GM into making a series of bad deals to make you happy, then publicly criticizing the lack of help he provided you; speaking (and allowing others to speak) of your loyalty to your city despite having one foot in Brooklyn and the other in LA throughout this ordeal; and, finally, ditching your own youth basketball camp as a parting shot to the impressionable kids of Orlando.

And, to boot, you’ve done most of your damage to the Magic and to your reputation while you recovered from surgery to repair your damaged back. So it hasn’t exactly been easy for you physically or emotionally over the last year, either.  

But don’t start thinking your problems are behind you now that you’re sporting Laker purple and gold. Because only now – after you finally got what you wanted – do things really start to get hard.  

In addition to all of the emotional weight you’ve saddled yourself with since you decided it was best for you and the Magic to see other people, you also carry, for the first time in your career, the pressure to win – and win now. This isn’t a suggestion.  

You’re a Laker – not a Net, not a Magic, not a Maverick or a Hawk – and when you’re part of this franchise, second place isn’t fine. It never has been. It wasn’t OK for George Mikan in Minneapolis nor for Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or your career-path doppelganger Shaq after the move to LA.  

In Orlando, you didn’t win a title, but that was OK because there were missing pieces that prevented you from doing so. In Los Angeles, you are the missing piece, and if you don’t work out, any and all Lakers shortcomings will become your problem. If the Lakers don’t bring home a title this year, the only year they’re guaranteed to have you on board, it’ll be your fault.  

So winning a championship is Option 1 and Option 1A this season, and in order to make this whole “title” thing happen so you can steer clear of the failure tag you so badly wish to avoid, there are a few things you have to do.  

First, you have to be OK with permanently changing who you are – or at least who people thought you were – off the court.  

See, Dwight, you became one of basketball’s most popular and well-liked players because, in addition to being supremely talented, you were the NBA’s resident jester. You were the antithesis of the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Garnetts of the league – guys who perhaps took the game too seriously to really enjoy it. But that’s not going to fly in LA.  

Kobe isn’t going to have the tolerance for your playfulness that everyone in Orlando so begrudgingly did. So you’ve got to get serious, because that’s what your new championship aspirations require you to be.  

Turning off the goofiness isn’t limited to pregame warmups and postgame press conferences, either. It also means applying a humorless approach to your specialized role on your loaded team and putting in the requisite work for you to be the best you can possibly be at that thing – even if it doesn’t make you into the player you envision yourself to be.  

Make no mistake, Kobe doesn’t care if you want the ball on offense, Dwight. But unlike Stan Van Gundy in Orlando – whom you called out publicly for not giving you enough touches, even after a win – Kobe isn’t going to address your desire to be anything but what the team needs you to be.  

He’s the leader, and all he cares about is extending his championship ring collection to the other hand.  

Now, don’t get me wrong, you’ll get touches in Los Angeles. Having Steve Nash run the point with your expansiveness clogging the middle practically begs for the Lakers to pick-and-roll everyone to death. So Mike Brown will see to it that that happens.  

But Kobe is still going to take 20 shots per game, and Nash will still be getting his 10 when he’s not setting you up for dunk after dunk. And let’s not forget Kobe’s partner in crime, Pau Gasol, who needs 15 shots a night and is higher on Bryant’s totem pole than you could ever hope to be.  

What you need to focus on, rather than scoring, is going out there and defending and rebounding like hell. Then maybe, if you do that well enough to earn the Lakers the championship they’re expecting out of you, you’ll get the dap you think you deserve.  

And, Dwight, keep in mind that just as much as you need a championship to fulfill your professional responsibility to your new team, you need it just as much to help you rebuild your image.  

As the freshly minted most-hated guy in the league, you’ve got some work to do to re-legitimize your brand and make people – across the board, not just in LA – love you again.  

Fortunately for you, you know it can be done. You’ve seen LeBron do it over the last few months, as you watched – from a hospital bed or a box seat at Chavez Ravine or wherever – while he has, against all odds, endeared himself to the basketball-watching public again.  

You’ve also got the blueprint. Stop being a TV sideshow and just be a basketball player. Focus on improving the things you struggle with as well as the things you’re already good at. Be forthright about your past; stop pretending what happened in Orlando didn’t happen. Win a championship.  

It’s not as easy as the path you wanted to take to Brooklyn, where you could have played second fiddle to LeBron’s Heat for the duration of your tenure, where you could have continued to be the silly, affable goofball that fans fell in love with. But you screwed that up when you bafflingly signed away your right to become a free agent this summer and choose your own destination.  

So you’re a Laker instead, Dwight, and that’s the hardest job in basketball right now. But if you do it right and stay out of Kobe’s way, you’ll soon be a champion and maybe one of the world’s most popular players again, too.  

Good luck, and I hope you’re happy.  

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