The Los Angeles Lakers didn't need to sign Dwight Howard, per se. Their plan going into the season was for DeMarcus Cousins to split center minutes evenly with JaVale McGee. When Cousins went down with a torn ACL, that plan could have been adjusted fairly easily. Anthony Davis, the presumptive power forward, could have slid over to center for some of his minutes in a move that may have made more sense for his skillset anyway.
The problem, as Ramona Shelburne confirmed on "The Stephen A. Smith Show" on ESPN Radio (as transcribed by Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen and Roll), is that Davis still does not want to play center. She reported that his preference for power forward is what brought Howard back to the Lakers in the first place.
"The reason that Dwight is a Laker is because Anthony Davis doesn't want to play the five. He doesn't want to play against the big centers in the Western Conference. He needs a big dude next to him that can eat up some of those minutes and take some of that physical pounding from Nikola Jokic or (Jusuf) Nurkic or any of the centers you want to name out West ... Anthony Davis doesn't want to be that guy, and so he had a big say in whether or not Dwight was going to be cast in this role for them."
Davis' distaste for the center position is nothing new. It is something that he has spoken openly about for years, and reiterated upon his trade to the Lakers. But the NBA is growing smaller by the season, and while Davis is perfectly capable of playing power forward, his optimal position is likely center.
But Davis is going to be a free agent after the season. He is widely expected to re-sign with the Lakers when that time comes, but his contract gives him leverage. After all, the last time the Lakers acquired a star center with only a year left on his deal, it was Howard. He left after only a single season. They cannot risk the same fate with Davis, and if that means playing him at a position in which he is less than effective, then so be it.
When it counts, the Lakers will likely play Davis at center anyway. They are not going to punt away a potential championship based solely and Davis' distaste for the center position, so late in games and in the playoffs, they will probably rely on lineups that feature him as the only big man. Sacrifices like that are necessary for their pursuit of a championship. Davis may not want to play center, but the Lakers have met him halfway with the Howard signing. So long as they can protect him from other centers most of the time, he'll be able to play the position when it matters most.