The Los Angeles Lakers sure are taking their sweet time bringing Dwight Howard back into action, aren't they? You'd think the NBA's Superman-Turned-Ironman would be ready to suit up for his new team already, what with his back surgery nearly six months in the rear view...right?
The Lakers and their training staff certainly don't seem to think so. According to Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register, Howard will miss the Lakers' preseason tilt with the Utah Jazz in Anaheim on Tuesday night.
Dwight Howard (back) will not play tomorrow night in exhibition vs. Jazz in Anaheim.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) October 15, 2012
What gives? Dwight's going to miss half the preseason and deprive Lakers fans/Disneyland residents the opportunity to watch LA's newest star in the flesh?!
Yeah. As well they should. The preseason only matters for Dwight insofar as it provides him with an opportunity to work his way back into game shape and test in live action the principles he's been running with the Lakers in practice for the last two weeks or so.
As if there won't be ample time during the 82-game regular season to sort all of that out. It's practically customary in Lakerland for the team to slog its way through the campaign before finally firing on all cylinders in time for a long playoff push.
In the meantime, there's no rush to have Dwight look anything less than snazzy in his street clothes on the sidelines this preseason while he awaits the go-ahead from the Lakers' team doctors. GM Mitch Kupchak didn't exactly bet the farm on Howard, though giving up Andrew Bynum—a home-grown talent who'd blossomed into an All-Star at center—was no small price to pay, even for the best big man on the planet.
Especially when said best big man's health is of grave concern. Let's not forget, he's coming off major back surgery in late April to treat an injury that had him looking like a mere mortal at times last season. Missing 12 games may not seem like a huge deal for most players, but when you're Dwight Howard and you missed a grand total of seven games through your first seven NBA seasons, a dozen absences in one year stand out.
Howard may not have had his heart and his head in it completely toward the end of his time with the Orlando Magic, but the guy wasn't about to "quit" on his team out of convenience. His back was in serious disrepair.
Heck, the guy could barely walk for weeks (if not months) after the operation. Seeing a 6'11" superstar known for his agility and fleetness afoot crawling through Beverly Hills with the assistance of a walker isn't exactly the most encouraging of sights for the average NBA fan.
Dwight's come a long way since then. He was cleared for full-contact five-on-five scrimmaging early on during training camp and, by all accounts, has looked phenomenal in practice, even as he continues to work himself into playing shape and regain the strength in his legs.
Back injuries, though, tend to be fickle beasts, especially those as serious as the one that befell the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. As such, Howard and his back must be treated with caution going forward. Dwight understands the severity of the situation, as he told Andrew Kamenetzky of ESPNLosAngeles.com:
"I want to play, but at the same time I want to make sure I'm ready to play and I'm in good shape to play. I know it's going to be different from practice to a game, (so) I just want to make sure I'm in good shape to play."
No one should expect anything different from Dwight in this regard; there's plenty at stake for him here. He'll be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, and would be loath to take any risk that might jeopardize his playing career and earning potential in the longer term, be it with the Lakers or some other team with cap space to spare next summer.
Nor would the Lakers wish to see Howard throw his health into the firing line sooner than he has to. They (and by they, I mean Kobe Bryant) have already made it clear that they've designated Dwight to be the future of the franchise, assuming he opts to stay once July of 2013 rolls around.
Long-term or short, what's most important is that Howard be 100-percent fit to play before he actually does. So much of his game is predicated on the very strength and athleticism of which he was sapped when his back went bunk. What good is it for a team to have Dwight Howard on its roster when he can't give his all physically, when he can't get off the floor like a kid on a trampoline to block shots and throw down thunderous dunks, when he can't set screens and hustle to the cup in the pick-and-roll?
The Lakers will need Dwight to do all those things (and more) with his usual proficiency if they're to unseat the Oklahoma City Thunder atop the Western Conference and challenge the Miami Heat for the Larry O'Brien Trophy this season. Winning the title, regardless of the final opponent, is usually the goal for the Purple and Gold, even more so with Howard and Steve Nash joining a $100-million payroll that already features a near-retirement Kobe and an aging Pau Gasol.
As such, the Lakers won't (and shouldn't) rush Dwight onto the court before he's ready not only to play, but also to dominate as he always has. Such a cautious approach will serve to preserve, if not enhance, their chances of bringing home the bacon next spring.
Not that anyone should be too worried about a postponed return for Howard anyway. Chances are, he'll be back in time to start in the season opener against the Dallas Mavericks on October 30th.
And gone will be any lingering complaints about Dwight lounging around in fancy vests and bow ties.