How Much Pressure Does Jordan Hill's Back Injury Put on Dwight Howard for L.A.?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2012

Oct.1, 2012, 2012;   El Segundo, CA, USA;    Los Angeles Lakers center Jordan Hill (27) during media day at the Los Angeles Lakers Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

If the Los Angeles Lakers had any plans of easing Dwight Howard into action with limited minutes early on, those plans just got a bit more complicated.

That's not to say it won't happen, but head coach Mike Brown won't find it quite as easy to sit Howard for long stretches with big man Jordan Hill's status now in question (via the Orange County Register's Kevin Ding):

Bad news for Lakers bench. Jordan Hill has herniated disk in his back. Will be re-evaluated in a week.

— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) October 9, 2012

It's still unclear what the injury means for Hill's availability, but we can safely assume it won't mean anything good.

At first glance, Hill's absence might not seem like a big deal. When compared to the other names on this roster, his doesn't stand out. The 25-year-old saw limited action with the Lakers after being acquired from the Houston Rockets, averaging under 12 minutes a game behind Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Nevertheless, Hill's more important than meets the eye.

There's a reason GM Mitch Kupchak was willing to give the little-used post presence $8 million over the course of two years. Even with Antawn Jamison and a deeper all-around roster, Hill brings a nice combination of size and explosiveness to the table, ensuring the league's best frontcourt 4-5 tandem actually has a solid understudy.

The 6'10" forward-center's ability to spell both Howard and Gasol made him especially valuable, allowing Mike Brown to either spread the floor with Antawn Jamison at power forward or maintain his size advantage with Hill.

More than any kind of production, the Los Angeles Times' Mark Medina explains how Hill's absence could impact the rotation:

Howard isn't going to suddenly expedite his rehab process because of this. The Lakers have maintained he's only returning once he's fully healthy. Still, the Lakers expressed little concern over Howard's rehab because Hill provided enough defensive intensity to hold down the fort on a short-term basis. The Lakers don't have anyone in their lineup that matches that job description.

If Hill misses extended time, expect Jamison to be the primary benefactor. Rather than giving untested rookie Robert Sacre much time behind Howard, Brown will be more likely to rotate Howard and Gasol at the center position while giving Jamison (and possibly even Earl Clark) the task of backing up Gasol at power forward.

Neither Jamison nor Clark amounts to the kind of interior presence Hill provides, but Jamison's ideal for spacing the floor, and Clark's a solid wing defender.

The problem is that neither will be very assuring against teams with bigger 4s. In those scenarios, Gasol will have to stay at power forward for longer stretches, leaving Howard to more or less go it alone at center.

The good news is that big, elite power forwards don't grow on trees. Gasol can guard the likes of Serge Ibaka or Blake Griffin without having to worry about comparably explosive 4s in the second unit. When Nick Collison or Lamar Odom comes in the game, Gasol will move over to center and give Howard a few minutes worth of rest. 

In short, yes, there's a way to manage this rotation.

There's just not much margin for error. It would require more minutes from Howard and Gasol both, and there's no guarantee Howard will be prepared (or authorized) to play those kind of minutes. Life without Hill might not be pleasant, but it's a heck of a lot better than life without him and Howard both.

So, while there's pressure on Howard in theory, his playing time ultimately remains at the mercy of doctors. It's in no one's interest to push Howard beyond what he's ready to do—even if he's proven thus far to be ready for just about anything.

If Hill's reexamination brings the worst possible news, the Lakers won't panic. They're more likely to pursue a veteran willing to play on the cheap than they are to rush things with Dwight.

There's no sense in making an unfortunate situation much, much worse.