Stan Van Gundy said Dwight Howard has lost explosiveness and must adjust. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Stan Van Gundy still exchanges friendly text messages with the player who he once claimed wanted him fired.
Van Gundy will tell Dwight Howard good luck before a game, or inform the star center that he played well after a solid performance for the Lakers.
Howard has sent more than thanks to his former coach. He also passed along some thoughts on his new team's primary shortcoming.
"The only thing he's really gotten into was," Van Gundy said Friday in a phone interview, "he wants their defense to be better."
Some might say Howard is part of the problem. The six-time All-Star has not resembled the dominant force many Lakers fans envisioned, his inspired performance Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers notwithstanding.
Howard has been a distant second option on offense behind Kobe Bryant. And he has only sporadically been a game-changing presence for a defense that is giving up 100.2 points per game, ranking 23rd in the NBA.
Leave it to Van Gundy to deliver a blunt assessment.
"I don't think he looks quite as explosive or as quick as he has in the past," said Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando for five seasons before being fired in May. "Now, he's still above almost everyone in the league at that size athletically, but he has not totally looked like himself to me."
Howard was clearly the league's best big man in Orlando, winning defensive player of the year three times and leading the Magic to the Finals in 2009.
The Lakers are .500 two months into the season in part because of Howard's uneven play. He is averaging 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds, the latter statistic representing his lowest output since his rookie season eight years ago.
Van Gundy cited Howard's back surgery in April and a diminished role in the offense as the biggest triggers for his rough start.
"It's a big adjustment for him going from being the guy to not only being the No. 2 guy but really a No. 2 guy that really doesn't get the ball very much at all," Van Gundy said. "It's a different deal and an adjustment he has to make. Those kind of things take time."
Bryant is hoisting 21.5 shots per game, almost double Howard's 10.8 shots, while enjoying a resurgence in efficiency. Bryant's 47.8% shooting accuracy is on pace to be the best of his 17 NBA seasons.
Van Gundy suggested that Howard needed to tweak his game like Miami's Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did after becoming teammates with LeBron James.
In other words, don't expect to score as much.
"I think Dwight is going to be more than willing to make the adjustment," Van Gundy said, "but it's still an adjustment and it takes time mentally too because your ego — and ego is not a bad thing, it's a good thing, you need it to be great in this league — tells you that you're supposed to be the man and having to adjust to playing off somebody else is not an easy thing."
Howard has said he's willing to play whatever role is necessary to win his first championship. His job has been complicated by early season upheaval, including the firing of Coach Mike Brown and injuries to Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
"We have to learn how to win together," Howard said this month. "It takes time. It's going to click one day and all this mess will be over with."
Potentially divisive situations are nothing new for Howard. He vacillated in his trade demands during his final season in Orlando, prompting the Magic to fire Van Gundy in a last-ditch attempt to placate its franchise player.
It didn't work. Orlando traded a still-unhappy Howard to the Lakers in August as part of a deal that netted the Magic six players and a slew of draft picks.
Howard denied Van Gundy's assertion that he had gone to team management in an attempt to oust his coach, but there is no lingering tension between the duo.
"Look, management makes decisions," said Van Gundy, who now works as a college basketball analyst for NBC. "The L.A. Laker management fired Mike Brown. The Orlando Magic management fired me and the Brooklyn Nets management fired Avery Johnson.
"Dwight and my time in Orlando, I thought the relationship was good, worked well, produced results and that's what player-coach relationships in this league should be about, are the results that they get and the results here were good, mainly because Dwight's as good as he is. He's a great, great player and I have a great appreciation for what he did for our teams and for me as a coach."
What can Howard do for the Lakers? Van Gundy didn't rule out a happy ending.
"I think he's getting ready to have a great year and you've got to have some patience, which is not a thing that fans really have in abundance and I understand that," Van Gundy said. "I think if they can stay healthy, by late January you'll have a pretty good indication of whether or not things are working."
All Van Gundy will have to do to find out is to check his phone.