10 degrees of Dwight Howard: How his injury changed the Wizards, the Lakers and NBA history

10 degrees of Dwight Howard: How his injury changed NBA history originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

There is a certain level of luck in professional sports, which the Lakers have traditionally seen the good side of while the Wizards have often seen the dark side. The last two years of Dwight Howard’s NBA career are a perfect example.

Howard signed with the Wizards in July of 2018 to be their starting center, only to show up to training camp with a back injury. He played nine games before needing season-ending surgery as the franchise crumbled around him.

Howard then left Washington via trade and found himself on the Lakers where he won his first NBA championship, never showing signs of that back injury amid a comeback season.

It was a cruel twist for Washington that worked out very well for the Lakers. But it also goes much, much deeper than that.

Here are 10 ways Howard’s injury changed the course of two franchises and, in turn, league history…

The Wizards probably make the playoffs last year

Howard was supposed to replace Marcin Gortat as their screen-setting, rebounding center. Once Howard went down, the Wizards became woefully bad in both areas and also couldn’t protect the rim, which he was expected to do. Those weaknesses proved crippling and were the main reasons the Wizards fell nine games short of making the playoffs. But they were 4-5 with Howard and, given how much they needed a player just like him, it seems highly possible they would have snagged the seventh or eighth seed if he was in the lineup.

Ernie Grunfeld might still be with the team

If the Wizards had made the playoffs at the end of the 2018-19 season, Grunfeld likely would have saved his job. Team chairman Ted Leonsis indicated towards the end of his tenure that it would come down to that goal. Once Grunfeld’s team fell short, he was gone. Now, things could have gone south after that in the 2019-20 season, enough to get Grunfeld canned. But there is a strong likelihood Howard staying healthy would have kept Grunfeld employed at least a little while longer.

Kelly Oubre Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. don’t get traded

As the 2018-19 season cratered for the Wizards, they became major sellers, shipping out a host of players including two guys they acquired with high draft picks; Oubre and Porter. Oubre was going to be a restricted free agent after the season, so he may have left by now anyway. But it’s doubtful either would have been traded when they were if the Wizards were in the middle of a playoff season. Maybe one or both of them would still be here.

They probably don’t get Rui Hachimura

When the Wizards bottomed out that season, they fell into the sixth-best odds in the draft lottery. That landed them the No. 9 pick, which they used on Hachimura. If they made the playoffs that season, they likely wouldn’t have been in position to draft him. Looking back, that is one silver lining from the experience as he has turned into a good player in a short period of time.

Thomas Bryant doesn’t get the same opportunity

If Howard’s body held up that season, he would have taken the lion’s share of minutes at center and blocked Bryant from getting the extended run he got in his place. That playing time helped Bryant have a breakout season which earned him a multi-year contract to stay in Washington. If Howard stayed healthy, maybe Bryant is still in town, but he is probably further behind in his development and not nearly as rich.

John Wall may have returned by now

Wall shut it down in December of 2018 due to nagging bone spurs in his heel. It was after that surgery that he fell in his house and ruptured his Achilles. But who knows how his rehab would have been treated differently if the Wizards were higher in the standings. If they made the playoffs last year and had Howard still in the mix, this past season wouldn’t have been treated the same way, as a gap year where they took their lumps. Maybe Wall would have been back on the floor earlier if the team felt they had a chance to go on a playoff run. 

Bradley Beal may get All-NBA

Beal has arguably been an All-NBA snub for two straight years now and the biggest reason, no matter how the voters explained it on their ballots, has to be the team’s record. If Beal put up the numbers he has had the past two seasons on 45-win teams, he very likely would have gotten the honors.

They don’t trade Howard, so he probably doesn’t become a Laker

Howard didn’t just leave the Wizards for the Lakers on his own volition, he was traded first. After a lost season in D.C., the Wizards sent Howard to the Grizzlies, who bought him out. He then signed in L.A. and the rest is history. Now, Howard did have a player option for the second year of his contract with the Wizards, so he could have opted out after a better season in search for more money. But he also may have liked the situation he was in and stayed on a restructured deal.

Howard doesn’t win a ring

If Howard doesn’t go to the Lakers, he doesn’t win a championship and that might be the biggest ‘what if’ on this list. We’re talking about a guy who had about as good a resume as any player in NBA history that wasn’t a champion. This ring completes his career in many respects and it also brings it full circle, as he was back with the Lakers and back in Orlando where it all began. So, Howard has many reasons to view the injury he had in Washington as a blessing in disguise.

The Lakers maybe don’t win, either

Do the Lakers win the title without Howard? Clearly, he wasn’t their best player. That honor would go to LeBron James or Anthony Davis. But Howard was also a fairly essential piece for them all season as one of the most reliable members of their supporting cast. He averaged a very efficient 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 18.9 minutes per game while holding a 73.5 effective field goal percentage. Bench players don’t get much better than that and his signing was among the best moves any team made last summer.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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