Jordan Hill, Howard's understudy at center, came down with a herniated disk in his lower back during LA's loss to the Golden State Warriors, in the teams' exhibition opener in Fresno, California on Sunday.
Hill chipped in 10 points, three rebounds, three assists and a steal in 20 minutes off the bench before spending the remainder of the game in consultation with Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, per Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register.
The nature of the injury was diagnosed on Monday by Dr. Robert Watkins, the same doctor who performed the surgery on Howard's back in late April.
Hill's absence is a troubling development for a Lakers squad that lacks quality depth along the front line.
The fourth-year forward out of Arizona came to LA this past March in a trade for Derek Fisher with the Houston Rockets. His defense, rebounding and overall energy off the bench were of tremendous value to the Lakers down the stretch of the 2011-12 season, and he looked to be a key ingredient in Mike Brown's rotation heading into a pressure-packed campaign.
As Brown told The Los Angeles Times during the first week of practice:
"Jordan Hill, he’s showing that, hey, I need to be on the floor. He’s the one guy that I could say besides my starters that right now is showing he really needs to be on the floor with his activity out there."
But as valuable as Hill is for his skills and intangibles, players of his ilk aren't exactly in short supply.
The Lakers have a plethora of options at their disposal—be they players already in the rotation, young guys slated for the end of the bench, non-roster invitees fighting for roster spots in camp or veterans looking for work—with which to replace Jordan's production in the interim.
The most obvious option, it seems, would be to give Pau Gasol some of Hill's minutes at the five as Dwight's backup (once Howard returns) and slide Antawn Jamison over to power forward.
Gasol's comfortable at center, having played there when he first arrived in LA in 2008, after Andrew Bynum went down with a season-ending knee injury. He can certainly rebound (he's averaged a double-double in each of the last three seasons), and while he's not a dynamic defensive presence per se, he's long enough to bother shots.
More importantly, the guy is almost always on the court. He's something of an iron man, having averaged about 37 minutes per game as a Laker, while keeping his foul rate at a shade over two calls per game.
This arrangement is not without its problems, though. As serviceable as Gasol is in the middle, the same can't be said for Jamison at power forward.
Whatever the cause of Jamison's deficiencies on the defensive end—effort, ability or otherwise—he ranks among the worst in the NBA at any position on that end of the floor, particularly in the pick-and-roll.
Not surprisingly, 'Tawn isn't much of a rebounder, either. Per Hoop Data, Jamison was third-to-last among power forwards in rebounding rate, beating out only Ekpe Udoh and sharpshooter Matt Bonner in that regard.
That being said, the Lakers could do worse than use a 36-year-old, offensive-minded, defensively-challenged, undersized power forward to sop up Hill's unused minutes.
For instance, Mike Brown could move Earl Clark into the rotation.
According to ESPN's John Hollinger, Clark was among the league's least-effective defenders with the Orlando Magic last season, despite having all the physical tools to be an asset on that end. Opposing power forwards pummeled him for a PER of 17.3 (per 82games.com), but at least that was an improvement over his performance against small forwards, who lit him up for a collective PER of 18.3.
In Clark's defense, he's still long, tall (6'10"), athletic and relatively young (24), so he's not a lost cause just yet. Moreover, in the Lakers' exhibition opener, he led all participants in rebounds (seven) and blocks (two).
There may be hope for Clark yet. That being said, he'll have to compete for playing time with Robert Sacre, known otherwise as the "Mr. Irrelevant" of the 2012 NBA Draft. The big man out of Gonzaga had his moments against Golden State, chipping in six points in 18 minutes.
Then again, it should be easy to score when you have guys like Steve Nash delivering otherworldly bounce passes in stride. It should also be easier to hang onto the ball than it was for Sacre, who turned the ball over four times.
And, is it too much to ask a seven-footer to come down with more than one rebound every nine minutes, as Sacre did on Sunday?
But, hey, Sacre's big, he's long, he's young and he's cheap, so he'll have his chances with Hill on the mend. Beyond that, the Lakers can turn to a trio of non-roster invitees to fill in for Hill.
There's Greg Somogyi, a plodding, 7'3" Hungarian behemoth out of UC Santa Barbara who was pleasantly productive (five points, six rebounds, one assist and one block in 15 minutes) in his preseason debut, but is hardly the mobile, energetic athlete that Hill is when healthy.
The same could be said for Ronnie Aguilar. At 7'1", he can move a bit, but he's yet to be given the proper time and opportunity to show what he can do.
Nauseating as this is for basketball fans in southern California—particularly those of the UCLA Bruins—to think about, the most natural Jordan Hill facsimile among the Lakers' training camp scraps may well be Reeves Nelson.
Yes, he was a cancer in Westwood, and yes, he couldn't cut it in Lithuania. But, if nothing else, Nelson is a fearless bruiser who's willing to mix it up in the middle and can be a spark plug off the bench when he's properly motivated.
Not that it should be the job of Brown and his staff to convince a 21-year-old nincompoop to get his act together, when they already have their hands full with more important players and even bigger egos.
Should those options prove insufficient, GM Mitch Kupchak can always dip into the (rather bare) free-agent market for help.
Kenyon Martin remains unsigned after a productive stint in the Clippers' front court last season. He's a far cry from the K-Mart of old, especially now that he's approaching his 35th birthday, but he's still tall, strong and capable of providing a physical presence for 20 minutes a night.
Chris Andersen, K-Mart's former teammate with the Denver Nuggets, fits much the same profile, though his off-court issues might be sufficient to scare off even an organization as familiar with baggage as the Lakers.
If worst comes to worst and the Lakers don't mind reanimating corpses, they can always turn (back the clock) to Ben Wallace.
Clearly, the Lakers can and will find a way to replace Jordan Hill. Luckily, Hill is only the sixth- or seventh-most important player on the roster (at best) and his skill set is common among guys his size.
Still, Hill is a valuable asset to LA's title drive, even more so after re-signing for less than the going rate this summer. Hopefully, he'll be fit to play again sooner rather than later, though back injuries are fickle beasts, indeed.
And if two of the Lakers' younger players can't stay healthy, how can anyone expect their collection of All-Star 30-somethings to survive the rigors of an 82-game sprint that, if all goes according to plan, will extend into a 100-plus-game marathon?
That's a ways off, though. For now, it's time for Mike Brown and Mitch Kupchak to devise a definitive Plan B for Jordan Hill.