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Dwight Howard's pivotal for two main reasons.
Let's start with the good. Howard's the best center in the NBA. He's the premier post defender in the league and likely the best defender—period.
He's won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Only two players have won the award four times. Of those two, Dikembe Mutombo has been retired for years, and the other, Ben Wallace, is nearing the end of his career and not nearly the defender he once was. That leaves Howard, who is still only 26 years old and in the prime of his career.
Howard is also an underrated offensive player, largely because he lacks polish on his post game and because he's an inconsistent free-throw shooter (58.8 percent for his career). But the fact remains that he's averaged 20.6 points per game and shot 59 percent from the field over the past five seasons.
And none of that even mentions that he's led the NBA in rebounding in four of the last five seasons and averages 13 rebounds per game for his career.
The bad thing about Howard—and what makes him so pivotal to the Lakers in 2012-13—is that he's recovering from back surgery. He said at his introductory press conference that there's no timetable for his return to the court and provided no guarantees that he'd be ready for the season opener on Oct. 30.
As anybody who's familiar with back injuries can attest to, they're often unpredictable. Of course, Howard's been healthy for the vast majority of his career, so he doesn't have the overall injury concerns that came with Andrew Bynum. But given the nature of his injury, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.
If Howard's healthy, L.A. is on the short list of championship contenders. But if this injury lingers or gets aggravated, forcing him to miss a significant portion of the season, the Lakers could be in a world of trouble.
Because of the relative uncertainty surrounding Howard's health, whether or not he can make significant contributions for the Lakers will be the most pivotal development in the upcoming season.