I was skeptical about a player coming back from major spinal surgery. Somehow, Dwight Howard achieved the impossible Sunday night: He disabused skepticism while losing to the Sacramento Kings. There hasn't been such hype affirmation amid a loss to the Kings since LeBron's first NBA game.
Nothing in this preseason game mattered as much as how Howard looked out there--and he looked fantastic. To my eyes the most striking aspect of the performance was Dwight's space-eating ability in the lane (under interrogation, I'll admit to being most struck by the cool dunks, just like every casual fan in the world).
The Lakers center will be asked to do a lot defensively this season, as he's not surrounded by the best defensive talent. Los Angeles finished 14th in defensive efficiency last year, well below the caliber of what a contending club should accomplish.
Not only that, but the Lakers added Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison. Nash obviously isn't in the best defensive shape at his age, but a point guard can be "hidden" on that end of the court. Jamison, on the other hand, is one of the worst defenders in league history, and will present problems with lapsed decision-making near the rim.
The Lakers also feature Pau Gasol, a good defensive center who will struggle against athletic, three-point shooting power forwards. If teams shift players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant to the 4 spot, Gasol will be forced to run, and Howard will need to compensate.
Guess what? It looks like Howard can actually pull it all off. We've seen merely one preseason game against the Kings, but Dwight is an immediate revelation down low. It should be noted that he didn't have the best surrounding defensive talent in Orlando. Los Angeles presents an upgrade in certain respects.
For instance, L.A. has more starting frontcourt size than Orlando did. Howard and Gasol threw a vicious trap on DeMarcus Cousins at the mid point of the third quarter. Cousins was blocked, hounded and somehow desperately got the ball out of the fray.
The trap was a frightening preview of how L.A. might more than compensate for some of its defensive deficiencies. The perimeter D is questionable, but the paint is enveloped by angry human trees. Now that he's obviously in good form, expect Howard to put the Lakers defense in similarly fine shape.