Remember when Kobe Bryant and Co. were unceremoniously dismissed from the 2011-12 playoffs in what appeared, at the time, to be a passing of the torch to the OKC Thunder's young core?
Of course you do, try as you might to forget.
After exchanging Andrew Bynum for the one guy who could qualify as an upgrade and adding Steve Nash to a backcourt sorely missing a point guard, Los Angeles just might have that torch back.
We can comfortably assume that Dwight Howard will make this team significantly better, but his ability to do so in short order has always depended on when he returns to the court. It's not a question of whether he'll be available for the postseason; it's a question of whether he'll be at his best.
That requires a comfort level with the Lakers' system and with his new teammates, an understanding of how he fits into the playbook and locker room alike. In other words, it requires something that isn't especially easy to learn on the job.
Fortunately, he won't have to.
Howard's recovery from back surgery in April has progressed just about as well as you could hope. Mike Trudell reports that Howard is already getting plenty acquainted with his new club at training camp:
Still no 5-on-5 contact scrimmages yet at LAL practice. @dwighthoward (back) was a full participant in the session.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) October 3, 2012
Good, Howard will be a bit less lost as he dives into a season in which he won't be the only one learning a new offense.
Getting used to the Princeton is only the first of Howard's objectives, and you have to imagine Mike Brown's coaching staff will bring everyone along at an appropriately gradual pace.
The upside is that the Lakers aren't entirely abandoning the schemes it used last year and reinventing the wheel—they're just infusing some new life into an offense that will remain pretty versatile.
And these Lakers are fast learners (via The Washington Post's staff):
“I don’t think it’s something that we’ll really have to struggle through,” [Kobe] Bryant said. “It’s a pretty seamless transition...I kind of relate it to the first year that Phil [Jackson] came here and put in the triangle offense. You had a lot of players that had high basketball IQ, and we just picked it up right away.”
Los Angeles is banking on the fact that Howard can do the same, and a full training camp will certainly help.
Of course, that's not the only thing with which Howard will have to grow more accustomed.
He'll also have to get used to having eyes in the back of his head. When you're an explosive big man playing with Steve Nash and his legendary court vision, remaining ready for the pass becomes an art in its own right. It's no knock on Jameer Nelson to say Howard's never played around this kind of passer.
Developing timing and communication with Nash will be essential to making all those lob passes look good.
Howard will also need to develop a sense of when to look for his own shot and when to defer.
That's something else he didn't have to worry about all that much in Orlando. With Kobe around, however, knowing when it's his turn will matter. What counts as a "good shot" or making a move too early in the shot clock means something different on every team, so there's little doubt Dwight will have to make some adjustments.
Though there's little risk that Howard would have been a disappointment without this training camp experience, we can expect to see this squad hit its stride sooner in the season—in enough time to pad their wins in the standings and secure the first or second seed in the West.
For all the benefits to Howard, the quick return will also help the rest of the Lakers. They'll need some time to pick up on Howard's habits and tendencies as well. Every practice helps.