The ejection of Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard in the third quarter of a 103-82 Game 4 loss that ended their season on Sunday had to remind the Lakers of something they witnessed a couple of years ago. A dejected and disconsolate Howard in a crucial elimination game didn’t do much in showing Lakers brass that he could maintain his poise during desperate times—one of the hallmarks of being a franchise leader.
Two years ago, the Lakers saw their former center, Andrew Bynum, get ejected in the final game of a sweep in a second-round series against the Dallas Mavericks. In a blowout game that saw the Lakers down by 32 points, Bynum took his frustrations out on then-Mavericks guard J.J. Barea by delivering a forearm blow that sent him crashing to the floor. Bynum was assessed with a flagrant foul and rightfully ejected, as he peeled his jersey from his body and marched back to the locker room. The act was definitely not a paragon of professionalism that the Lakers organization demands from their players and personnel.
Bynum, who was 23 years young at the time, was seen as a potential successor of the Lakers franchise once Kobe Bryant made his exit from professional basketball. That incident questioned whether he had the maturity and sensibility to finish the game like a leader. As the story goes, the Lakers management questioned his character and health by swapping him for Howard in the 2012 offseason.
On Sunday, Howard expressed his discontent to referees for the overt physical contact he’s been experiencing throughout the first-round series with the Spurs. Near the end of the first quarter, Howard swung his arms around a bevy of San Antonio defenders following a rebound, which pushed Spurs guard Cory Joseph, resulting in the first technical foul. At the 9:51 mark of the third quarter, Howard complained yet again after fighting to gain position against Spurs center Aron Baynes. That second technical foul ended Howard’s night with seven points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes.
Following his ejection, Howard was visibly exasperated as he made his way into the Staples Center tunnel leading to the locker room. General Manager Mitch Kupchak happened to be at the tunnel and gave Howard a backside pat, but the franchise center was in no mood for exchanging pleasantries, as he expressed his discontent for the call.
“I just got to do a better job of keeping my cool,” said Howard in his postgame presser.
Though Howard’s ejection on Sunday was far less heinous than Bynum’s, it still questioned his ability to maintain composure despite being swept in a best-of-seven series due to an unfortunate spate of roster injuries. It was the first time the Lakers have been swept in a first-round series since 1967.
Kupchak and his confidants have to wonder whether Howard, who becomes a free agent this offseason, is ready to take the reins of the Lakers from an aging Bryant. Bryant’s season ended with an unfortunate Achilles injury and is expected to be back by next season, which is his last contractual season with the Lakers. Whether Bryant can come back and become remotely close to the franchise player he once was is highly questionable.
In the meantime, finding the next player to essentially become the face of the franchise is the next logical move, but is that player Howard? Can he refrain from being a detriment to the team by taking himself out of games with technical fouls for excessive complaints to the referees, particularly come playoff time? Is he worth a five-year, $118 million max contract to stay with the Lakers if his leadership abilities are questionable?
Though the injury-riddled Lakers were undermanned against the Spurs, it was a time when Howard was needed the most. Forward Pau Gasol, who finished the game with 16 points and eight rebounds, would’ve certainly liked to see Howard remain on the floor.
“I didn’t want to see him get ejected,” said Gasol in his postgame interview. “We needed him on the floor.”
Gasol’s sentiment was echoed by former-Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Never short on expounding his views on his former team, Johnson took to Twitter to communicate his resentment for Howard’s ejection.
LN: Dwight, I’ve been swept before but I never let my team down by getting kicked out of the game.
The Lakers organization has some difficult decisions to ponder and that should make for an interesting offseason. The roller coaster ride that was the 2012-13 season could be matched by the twists and turns of the 2013 offseason.
Ben Hernandez Jr.
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