Over the past two seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers have done the unthinkable. By that, of course, I'm referring to the fact that they have fallen from the upper echelon of the basketball gods and become just another postseason regular.
Debate that all you'd like, but biases lie and numbers do not. The Lakers have lost 11 of their past 16 postseason games, with five of those losses coming by at least 15 points.
In their past two Western Conference Semifinals appearances, they've been outscored by an average margin of 13.3 points. They've also lost eight of their past nine games on said stage.
One of the most prominent franchises in NBA history has lost its identity.
With a legendary offseason that included the acquisitions of a two-time league MVP in Steve Nash, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard, and a former Sixth Man of the Year in Antawn Jamison, much has changed. In fact, it's safe to say that everything has changed.
The Lakers' identity has been restored. For that, we can thank the most polarizing figure in the NBA: Dwight Howard.
Howard led the talentless Orlando Magic to at least 50 wins in four of the past five seasons. The one season he failed to, of course, was the lockout shortened 2012 when Howard suffered a season-ending back injury.
After feeling the physical burden of leading the Magic, D-12 had finally had enough of the lack of talent surrounding him. With upwards of $10 million a season going to the likes of Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu, it became clear that Orlando wasn't moving in the direction that Howard would have hoped.
Fortunately for the Lakers, Howard remains one of the most dominant individual forces in the NBA. Paired with a handful of accompanying factors, this makes D-12 the quintessential Los Angeles Laker.
It also marks the return of Showtime.
Larger Than Life
Dwight Howard is a larger than life personality whose production and comedic demeanor overwhelm those who both face and witness him.
The Los Angeles Lakers are a franchise whose championship pedigree and unparalleled pairing of star power, flash and elite fundamentals have set them apart from all in the basketball world.
If there is a better fit of franchise and player, you would be hard-pressed to find it.
In recent years, the identity that the Lakers had built for themselves as an organization had been lost. Abandoned were the days of the Showtime Lakers as the team was no longer able to both overpower and out-dazzle its opponents.
The fear that the Lakers once struck into the hearts of their opponents was lost. They had become just another contender whose high-profile name outweighed the actual championship caliber value they were believed to possess.
Due to the arrival of Howard and point guard Steve Nash, that is no longer the case. The larger than life personalities have returned, while the team's external and internal expectations have found balance.
For supporters and detractors, it is title or bust for the Los Angeles Lakers. Believe you me, the Lakers wouldn't have it any other way.
Nothing Less than "Big" Dominance
Throughout the illustrious history of the Los Angeles Lakers, there is one constant that connects each passing generation. No matter who was declared the leader of the franchise, there was a dominant center in the paint at all times.
From George Mikan to Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal, the tradition has been upheld for generations. As a result, the Lakers have won an incredible 16 NBA championship titles.
Despite winning two of the past four titles, however, the imbalance and weakness of the Lakers' rotation has been apparent. It has led to their abominable failure over the past two postseasons, which coincidentally came as the team began the process of shifting responsibility to a young face.
That man, of course, was center Andrew Bynum.
Although Bynum has a rabid fanbase who will live and die by their claims of his being better than Dwight Howard, he is not from a production standpoint. Although numbers can be overvalued, let's make one thing perfectly clear.
If you have the ability and you are not properly utilizing it, your skills are meaningless.
Although Bynum had an excellent 2011-12 regular season and a respectable postseason, his elite performances were too far in between. Dwight Howard, meanwhile, has been the poster child for consistently elite production.
D-12, not Bynum, fits perfectly into the Mount Rushmore of Lakers big men. Whether Shaquille O'Neal wants to admit it or not, Howard is the best big man in the NBA.
He's also the man who will restore the Laker identity that Shaq himself helped to build as a frontcourt driven franchise. Career averages of 18.4 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game should offer insight as to why.
Defense Wins Championships, but Balance Trumps All
Since Chuck Daly coined the term "defense wins championships," those with postseason aspirations have begun to take an all-out approach on the defensive end of the floor. In fact, six of the past seven NBA champions have ranked in the top 10 in terms of scoring defense.
What historians fail to acknowledge, however, is the fact that there is one weapon that is more powerful than defense. Balance.
By acquiring Dwight Howard, the Los Angeles Lakers have returned to their days of said balance. They are a dominant force on the offensive end with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Antawn Jamison and Howard.
D-12 now makes this defense elite, as well.
He did it alone in Orlando, and there is no reason why he can't do it with greater talent surrounding him in Los Angeles. With Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant on the perimeter, as well as the fundamentally sound Pau Gasol, Howard should have his best year to date.
By the end of the 2012-13 season, one thing should be perfectly clear. The Los Angeles Lakers have rediscovered their identity.
For the rest of the NBA, that is a very scary reality.