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Role reversal: As Howard sacrifices minutes for wins, Bryant cripples Lakers’ future

Houston Rockets

Role reversal: As Howard sacrifices minutes for wins, Bryant cripples Lakers’ future

Dwight Howard was considered the selfish one for leaving Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in Los Angeles, but perhaps that view should change.

Dwight Howard at Rockets training camp

Dwight Howard is leading by example in his first season with the Rockets.

Remember when Dwight Howard was portrayed by so many as the selfish one in Los Angeles?

Ever since leaving the Lakers for the Rockets, numerous national media voices have criticized him for supposedly running from a leadership role and lacking the commitment to win an NBA championship.

Monday offered an interesting contrast on that front. In Memphis, the Rockets (10-5) pulled off a miraculous 93-86 come-from-behind victory, all with Howard not playing one second in the fourth quarter.

Statistics, shot attempts, post-up opportunities… Howard didn’t seem bothered by the lack of any of those on Monday night.

Because his team won.

Remember when Howard supposedly brought a stat sheet around the locker room in Los Angeles to complain to teammates about how he didn’t get enough field-goal attempts? That’s not happening in Houston. In four of the Rockets’ last six games, Howard has seen his shot attempts limited to single digits. In three of those games, he played fewer than 30 minutes.

Yet no one around the Rockets has heard the slightest complaint. Why? It starts with the fact that the Rockets won all of those games, and Howard is embracing the concept of leading by example.

“We have to play four consistent quarters,” Howard recently told the Houston Chronicle. “It can’t be one quarter or two quarters or three. It has to be four. Guys have to know their limits, know when they need a break, be humble enough to raise their hand and get somebody else in to play those minutes. A lot of times, guys cruise. I’ve cruised a couple times, wanted to stay out there longer.

“You can’t do that if you want to be a great team. You have to go out there and go hard and play 48 minutes as hard as you can, whether that’s 20 minutes, five minutes, 30 minutes, we have to all give it all and trust that the guy off the bench is going to give us the same effort or more. We all have to get to that level where we trust each other and trust that the guy that is going to come in for us will come in with the same intensity. Once we get there, we’ll be a tough team to beat.”

On Monday, Howard practiced what he preached. Though his big-picture numbers were solid with 15 points (6-of-10 FG) and seven rebounds in 27 minutes, he turned it over five times and didn’t seem to have his ‘A’ game. The Rockets then caught fire late in the third quarter and early in the fourth with Omer Asik (10 rebounds, 2 blocks in 21 minutes) in the middle to defend Zach Randolph.

Head coach Kevin McHale opted to ride the hot hands, leaving Howard and Jeremy Lin on the bench as the Rockets put away the Grizzlies with a 38-23 burst. Most impressively, neither star seemed bothered at all. Howard, in particular, was routinely the first one off the Houston bench to high-five his teammates and encourage Asik (his own replacement) to keep up the good work.

Meanwhile, nearly 2,000 miles away in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant put pen to paper a few hours earlier on a two-year contract extension for $48.5 million. That deal ensures that Bryant, coming off a debilitating tear of his Achilles, will remain the highest paid player in the NBA through the 2015-16 season — when he’ll be 37 years old and in his 20th season.

The NBA salary cap for this season is $58.6 million, and the Lakers just committed an average annual salary of $24.3 million — over 40% of the cap — to one player. In a league where Hall-of-Fame veterans such as Tim Duncan (making $10.3 million/year) and Kevin Garnett ($11.5 million/year) are routinely accepting below-max contracts to help their teams build a championship roster, Bryant’s new contract means the Lakers only have room for one other max deal.

The problem with that, of course, is that the Lakers are more than one max player away from contention. They had Howard with Bryant last season, and it was barely enough to squeak into the playoffs. It seems doubtful that a 30-year-old Carmelo Anthony, should the Lakers succeed in their quest to lure him away from New York next summer, would do much more.

A popular rumor over the summer was that Howard wanted the Lakers to either amnesty Bryant or offer up a firm timetable on how they planned to move on. It was never confirmed, but it made sense. If the Lakers wouldn’t cut the cord then, with Howard holding enormous leverage, how could he trust the team to move on from Bryant in the future when that leverage went away?

The bottom line is that Kobe Bryant and the Lakers each prioritized security, stability and their own glamour status ahead of making the sacrifices needed to build a true contender.

On the other hand, Dwight Howard — playing on a contract worth $30 million less than what he could have received in Los Angeles — sat on the bench Monday in Memphis without complaint for an entire fourth quarter. Because it was what the Rockets needed to win.

Who is the selfish one, again?

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