Dwight Howard back in time for the season opener?
Not so fast.
"The Lakers have been reluctant to make public a timetable on Howard's return, and have maintained a cautious approach to protect his long-term health."
Good for them.
There just isn't much to be gained by bringing Howard back before he's absolutely ready, and his doctors will ultimately determine when that is. As eager as the All-Star center may be to debut, along with the rest of the new-look roster, it's far more important that he not risk setbacks that could sideline him for an extended portion of the regular season.
As it is, Howard will already miss out on some valuable opportunities to build chemistry with his new team during training camp and preseason games.
But Los Angeles can stomach that.
Losing him for any significant chunk of time later in the season would be another story altogether, a costly interruption for this starting unit's attempts to gel well in advance of the postseason.
In theory, Howard shouldn't have to worry about another herniated disc. After his April surgery, that back should be as good as new structurally.
The concern is that playing at anything less than full strength could cause the big man to compensate with unsound biomechanics that lead to entirely new problems. In the same way that fatigue can cause players to move differently and spur "wear and tear" kind of injuries, returning to the floor before his training regimen runs its course could lead to similar unpredictable consequences.
It would be one thing if we were talking about Howard coming back in time for a playoff game, but at worst, his brief absence could cost the Lakers a couple of games in the standings.
And that's assuming they lose when he's not on the floor.
Let's not forget that we're still talking about a rotation featuring Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. With Gasol and Jordan Hill more than capable of playing quality minutes at center, it's not as if L.A. would be going into battle with a gaping hole in the middle of its lineup.
Moreover, there's actually something to be said for giving those guys some extra time at the spot. Even if Howard doesn't miss another game all season, he'll obviously spend some occasional time on the bench.
Gasol and Hill may not be new to the Lakers, but they're new to the Princeton offense and offseason acquisitions like Nash, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks, so it's important for them to develop comfort zones at both the power forward and center spots.
Frankly, it's also crucial that Howard not start out on the wrong foot.
Besides the health and basketball reasons, the Lakers shouldn't begin the Dwight era by saddling him with any more pressure than what's already resting on his broad shoulders. The urgency to return may be of his own making, but it's not as if he's entertaining that kind of decision without plenty of pressure—even if that pressure is merely implicit.
There's something slightly anti-climactic about such a thoroughly-hyped summer prize not hearing his name called when that first starting lineup is announced.
But the narrative surrounding Howard's relocation is the last thing with which he (or the Lakers) should be concerned.
Of course, it could very well be the case that the sources proclaiming Howard's eagerness are more interested in advancing just such a narrative than establishing a credible timetable. No matter how "determined" Howard is to play, this isn't his decision.
In other words, all this report really establishes is that Howard wants to play, a gesture that should win him a few extra fans among the L.A.'s already-adoring masses. If he doesn't make it back for that season opener, at least we'll all know it wasn't Dwight's fault.
Optics aside, though, the doctors making the call know better than to rush this guy back.
Greatness can wait if need be, at least for a few games.