Los Angeles Lakers

Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and the battle for hearts and minds

Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard have played surprisingly important roles for the Lakers. But for most fans, they are the same prickly personalities they’ve always been.

Every year there is a team with a former All-Star or two that has inflated expectations from name recognition. It’s why signing Carmelo Anthony or Derrick Rose is lauded as a smart move when, well, it hasn’t really been much of a needle mover for quite a few years (though I am compelled to admit that Anthony did exceed my personal expectations as a Blazer this year). These are teams that would have been nearly unstoppable if each player was in their prime, but are at the time of their actual existence, a bit less formidable. The best example of this may be the 2017-18 Cavaliers who had six different All-Star players suit up for them at one point or another during that season. The problem was that, of these six, only two — LeBron James and Kevin Love — showed any traces of their previous selves.

Uncoincidentally, these strange teams are often led by LeBron James whose penchant for surrounding himself with veterans is well-known. And this season has been no exception as Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard have joined the Lakers, with L.A. hoping they can provide veteran savvy off the bench and them hoping for a late-career ring, enhancing their title. Yet, with them, while a championship would save Howard from the ignominy of retiring ringless and burnish Rondo’s Hall of Fame credentials, the love they once had from the basketball-loving public is not coming back regardless.

Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard are burnishing their legacies but aren’t changing their stories

Throughout the early 2010s, Rajon Rondo was one of the most unique and compelling point guards in basketball. While he was never in the top tier — he only made one All-NBA team, in 2012 — he was the heady engine for those Celtics teams that pushed LeBron to the limit year after year, leading the team after the team’s big three aged out of superstardom. However, Boston’s years of contention passed and Rondo struggled with injuries, tearing his ACL in January 2013 missing nearly a full year. By the time he returned, the Celtics were in the midst of a 27-45 campaign and opted to trade him to the Mavericks the following season.

Rondo quit on the Mavericks in the postseason, being benched after the second game of their first-round loss to the Rockets. Rondo’s reputation was further damaged by his spewing homophobic slurs at referee Bill Kennedy in a 2015 game, who was compelled to come out in the days following Rondo’s outburst. Also, stories revealed by his former teammates and coaches have made it clear just how miserable coexisting with him often was, which did not help.

He has spent the last several seasons going from team to team, unable to find a home or reclaim the spark that made him an All-Star in Boston. In these stints, Rondo somehow was able to turn hunting for assists — theoretically the most selfless act in basketball — into a self-aggrandizing mission, prioritizing his statistical totals over team success, playing to his full capabilities only on nights his team appeared on national television.

His raw numbers weren’t drastically different from what they had been in his prime since he’d never been a big scorer and could still find the open man with ease, but anyone watching could see that he was no longer doing anything to make his team better. Even now, his worth for this Lakers team is up for debate. While he has played generally quite well in the postseason, it’s hard to argue that those minutes aren’t better served by being given to Alex Caruso. The paucity of depth at the point guard position has helped Rondo as much as he has helped the Lakers.

While Rondo was never truly great, Howard absolutely was. From 2008 to 2012, he was named to five consecutive All-NBA first teams, also winning Defensive Player of the Year four years in a row during that same span. And though it’s easy to forget now, Howard was truly loved when he first came into the league. He was always smiling, eager to crack jokes on camera, and just seemed like an irrepressible kid who had fulfilled his biggest dream. His performances in the Dunk Contest were impressive and fun, even if in hindsight they ushered in the hackneyed reliance on props that has hurt the event in the years since.

But the tide started to turn when he demanded a trade from Orlando. It was less the fact of the trade demand itself than the way he went about it, throwing Stan Van Gundy under the bus while denying well-attested reports over and over in the hopes of making himself look better. The emblematic moment occurred when he put his arm around a soda sipping Stan Van Gundy, telling his coach and the press that the rumors swirling regarding his demand that Van Gundy be fired were unfounded, rumors that Van Gundy himself had confirmed literal seconds before Howard arrived. It was awkward.

As time passed and his skills faded, Howard’s demeanor changed. He sulked about not getting enough post-ups while still clinging on to a schtick that had grown tiresome. What once seemed childlike now just seemed childish. No team wanted him and his former teammates in Atlanta reportedly cheered at the news of his departure. He hopped around from Houston to Atlanta to Charlotte to Washington, and like Rondo, put up decent numbers while contributing little of actual value.

The most shocking thing about his time in Los Angeles is that he actually has changed. He has not complained about the lack of offensive opportunities and has seemed to embrace this lesser role. That may seem like a minor thing, but it was not promised entering the season — the Lakers only gave him a non-guaranteed contract, after all.

If the Lakers do go on to win the championship, it will be further validation of LeBron James’ greatness as well as a coronation for his partner, Anthony Davis. While Rondo and Howard have performed well, and have played important roles for the Lakers this postseason, their success will be a footnote. No one will see this as confirmation of their greatness and if they have any staunch defenders left, I don’t know who they are. If it is to matter, it will help them in the aftermath of their careers as they try to establish a legacy.

It certainly helps Rondo’s questionable Hall of Fame chances — Basketball-Reference currently gives him a 40 percent chance to be enshrined — and gives him a leg up on all his peers in this one area even if he is lagging behind them in most others. Howard is already a lock for the Hall of Fame, but this burnishes his credentials historically, making it easier to argue that he was better than, say, Patrick Ewing.

The issue is that, even if this causes them to be more respected, it won’t make them loved again. They’ve burned too many bridges for that right now. Maybe as the years pass, if Howard stops saying he doesn’t believe in vaccinations and shows a modicum of self-awareness or if Rondo becomes less prickly, fans will be more eager to argue for their greatness. But as things currently stand, even as they contribute to a potential champion, they seem like relics from a distant past that was somehow less than a decade ago. Of course, if the Lakers win the title and Howard and Rondo spend an October evening drinking champagne in Orlando, then I doubt they’ll care too much.

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