L.A. Lakers Wise to Play It Safe with Dwight Howard's Return to Action

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 12, 2012

Oct. 10, 2012; Ontario, CA, USA;   Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) out on the court during warms up before the pre-season game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Citizens Business Bank Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

No, Dwight Howard isn't the Los Angeles Lakers' best player just yet, but it's hard to argue he's any less important than Kobe Bryant when it comes to this team's title hopes.

Those are the hopes that matter, too, far more so than any eagerness to see the three-time Defensive Player of the Year make L.A. an unstoppable preseason beast. If the front office hadn't already proven as much this summer, the Lakers are no dummies.

The organization knows better than to deploy its most valuable assets at the least important times, so this note from Lakers reporter Mike Trudell shouldn't be too surprising:

Though @dwighthoward continues to improve & look great at practice, he will not play on Saturday vs. Utah.

— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) October 11, 2012

Sure, it wouldn't hurt for Howard to pick up some extra minutes in actual game situations, but there's no question he's been making the most of practice up until now—including five-on-five scrimmages.

There's not a whole lot Howard would take away from that game against the Jazz that he couldn't just as easily glean from practicing against other Lakers.

It should also go without saying that, regardless of how much Howard participates in the preseason, it will take him some time to start playing his best basketball. No matter what happens between now and the end of October, Dwight's going to look a lot better in March than he will in November.

That can't be wished—or practiced—away, and it's as much a function of acclimating to a new roster as it is recovering from back surgery.

So the Lakers aren't "babying" their newest superstar. Holding him out of another preseason game or two isn't a political decision or a business decision. It's a medical one.

It's ultimately not one that Howard or head coach Mike Brown has much say over. The team is ultimately following a timeline that's in its best interests, one that should keep their elite center pain free throughout the season. His ability to remain healthy depends on strengthening his core and taking a cautious approach to avoid any discomfort or disruption of biomechanics.

And for what it's worth, this recovery process has gone as well as could be expected—certainly as well as general manager Mitch Kupchak expected in August (via the Orange County Register's Kevin Ding):

We feel very assured he's going to be back," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "We're hopeful he's back for camp; we're hopeful he's back to start the season. But we know he's going to be back and playing at a high level at some point in time.

That point in time is sometime very soon.

Howard began practicing earlier this October and drew rave reviews from day one according to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin, who quoted one source as saying, "He was dunking everything in sight...He looks like he can play in an NBA game today."

Lakers fans can take some solace in the fact that even though Howard's missing preseason games, it's not out of urgent necessity.

It's just part of the plan.

When Howard does return, he'll be able to do so with confidence and a greater comfort level when it comes to rolling to the basket and using his explosiveness. Rushing a return wouldn't do him (or the guys depending on him) any favors.

For their part, the Lakers can afford to be patient.

Even if Howard experiences any setbacks from here on out, backup forward-center Jordan Hill and starter Pau Gasol should be able to fill in nicely. Hill had a scare recently when diagnosed with a herniated disc, but the Los Angeles Times' Mark Medina reports that he won't need surgery and shouldn't miss much time.

More importantly, the Lakers won't be taking any rings home in November. This is a marathon, something Mike Brown's former boss Gregg Popovich has always stressed; the Spurs coach often gives his veterans entire games off to keep them fresh. 

Even though Brown worked Kobe Bryant to the tune of 38.5 minutes a game last season, he has the depth and talent to play his key pieces at a less taxing rate this season—especially the piece who's spent five months rehabilitating from back surgery.

The virtues of patience go without saying, but this isn't about doing the right thing. It's about doing the smart one.