Howard made his first appearance in the Lakers' famed purple and gold Sunday evening against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center and received a standing ovation. Howard responded by giving fans a taste of what to expect by contributing 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks on 8-of-12 shooting in his first game action since April.
While Howard posted an impressive stat line in his debut, there were some areas where he could use a bit of fine-tuning before the Lakers can claim he is fully up to speed. In the following slides, we will examine and grade five key areas of his performance, and we'll also analyze how the Lakers can improve with Howard finally on the court with his teammates.
Although Howard has been a full participant in Lakers practices during training camp, he hasn't played in a game since April 7, and a little rust showed in his debut against the Kings. Howard's first basket of the game came via a nice alley-oop from Pau Gasol, but when Howard got his first opportunity to post up, he seemed a bit rusty.
Howard lost possession of the basketball due to sloppy ball-handling after he rushed into his first post move in the first quarter against DeMarcus Cousins. To Howard's credit, he quickly adjusted and soon made a nice face-up drive on Cousins, earning a trip to the free-throw line in the process.
When Howard re-entered the game in the second quarter, he again appeared tentative and uncertain of what move he wanted to make in the post, resulting in Chuck Hayes stripping him of the ball.
Howard again corrected the mistake on his next chance, quickly sealing Hayes under the basket and drawing a foul. Unfortunately, he converted only 3-of-8 from the line, but that's an area of his game that has always needed more work.
On the defensive end, Howard's skills seem to be up to speed, as he blocked four shots and altered a handful of others. He was aware of his defensive assignments and helped his teammates when necessary. Howard looked as if he hadn't lost a step on the defensive end.
Back injuries are a tricky thing for professional athletes, especially one that relies on athleticism so much. Before his injury and surgery, Howard was widely considered the most athletic center in the NBA, and many were concerned that he might lose some of his mobility and leaping ability.
That didn't appear to be the case. His first basket came via an alley-oop dunk, and he moved smoothly around the court throughout the game. Actually, four of Howard's eight field goals were dunks, the most impressive being a monster finish of a Kobe Bryant lob pass off of a give-and-go play in the second quarter.
The only thing that kept Howard from receiving an "A" in this area is that at times he appeared to be coasting when running back in transition. Howard seemed to be gliding when he'd normally sprint, which may have been due to fatigue (which we will get to on the next slide).
Overall, Howard's mobility seems to be intact. He retained the exceptional explosiveness and athleticism that has made him so dangerous on both ends of the floor throughout his career, and he didn't appear to show any ill effects of his back surgery.
As mentioned in the previous slide, Howard appeared to coast at times when transitioning from offense to defense and vice versa, most likely due to fatigue. Mike Brown played Dwight 33 minutes in the game, and with six months since Howard's last game action, some fatigue is expected.
Howard was breathing heavily during a couple timeouts, especially in the first quarter. He played the first eight minutes of the game with only one timeout being called before being subbed out at the 4:25 mark.
Howard returned with 8:10 left in the second quarter and finished the half with the rest of the starters. Coach Brown did mention prior to the game (h/t ESPN) that he wanted to apply regular-season rotations, and apparently his plan included Howard's minutes as well.
When Howard did have his wind, he sprinted down the floor with ease. For example, during a sequence in the third quarter, he blocked a shot by Cousins to start a fast break, then followed the play with a putback slam of a Metta World Peace missed layup.
Howard may need a couple more games before his conditioning is up to speed. Although he may have been winded at times, he is athletic enough to be a difference maker regardless, as evidenced by his impressive stats (Howard secured a double-double with a little less than eight minutes to go in the game).
Howard's chemistry with his teammates was apparent from the start of the game. His first basket came at the 10:40 mark off an alley-oop pass from Pau Gasol. Howard also worked the pick-and-roll well with Kobe Bryant, converting a nice bounce pass from the wing into a three-point play.
Howard also connected with Kobe on a huge give-and-go alley-oop, finishing high above the rim with authority. It appears as if Howard's best chemistry so far is with Bryant, and the two worked a two-man game on multiple occasions throughout the night.
Howard still needs work on his chemistry with Steve Nash. He set a couple picks for Nash around the top of the key, but the plays didn't result in much. Nash did find Howard for yet another alley-oop in the fourth quarter, so the foundation for them to make a connection is there.
Where Howard had the most chemistry with his teammates may have been defensively.
Howard communicated with them when he was helping off his man, double-teamed effectively and altered a number of shots when required. His teammates appear to trust him, and that trust will only continue to grow as they spend more time on the court together.
Despite needing a little more work on his sharpness, conditioning and chemistry with his teammates, Howard's debut was encouraging for Lakers fans. He was explosive at times, flashing the trademark athleticism that has made him the best center in the NBA.
Howard already appears to be in regular-season form on the defensive end of the floor, blocking four shots in his debut Sunday night and registering 12 rebounds as well. His offense needs refining, but luckily the Lakers have enough reliable scorers that he has time to get up to speed.
Overall, given his performance against the Kings, Howard should be in regular-season form after a couple more preseason games. He should be ready to go by the Lakers' regular-season opener on October 30 against the Mavericks.