Forget about the NBA preseason. Forget about reports out of practice and whispers through the grapevine.
In a matter of hours, Dwight Howard will make his regular-season debut for the Los Angeles Lakers, and everyone will get to see for themselves how the big fella is responding to his new circumstances.
Of course, Dwight won't be the only subject of speculative ogling at the Staples Center on Tuesday night. He'll be sharing the shiny new court with fellow superstar Steve Nash and may or may not have to acquiesce to Kobe Bryant, depending on how the Laker legend's foot is feeling.
That being said, Dwight remains the biggest acquisition of the offseason and will be tasked with lifting the Lakers back into legitimate title contention. As such, he'll be the apple of everyone's eye when the Lake Show goes toe-to-toe with the visiting Dallas Mavericks on opening night.
To make sure your goggles are properly tuned to the action on TNT, let's have a look at what to watch for from Howard's first meaningful foray in Forum blue and gold.
Beyond points, rebounds and blocks, the most important stat to track for Dwight will be minutes played. Howard hasn't seen any meaningful action since April 7, when he registered a 20-20 effort in 44 minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers.
He played surprisingly significant minutes in his only two preseason contests (33 and 24, respectively) and looked relatively strong on both occasions.
Still, there's no telling how close to 100 percent Howard currently is as far as in-game strength and stamina are concerned. Will he be able to withstand the rigors that come with banging bodies for upwards of 30 minutes, with the bright lights shining squarely on his surgically repaired back? Will he stand tall in crunch time, or will he shrink under the weight of expectations while gasping for breath?
And will he be able to shoulder an even bigger burden to lead the Lakers to victory if Kobe's foot keeps him out of action on Tuesday night?
More specifically, will Dwight's jumps carry him as high or be timed as perfectly as they did and were pre-injury?
There were times during the Lakers' preseason that Howard looked like his old self—throwing down monstrous dunks, bullying people in the post and challenging every shot in sight—and others when he looked rather rusty. His timing was off on occasion, as were his box-outs, to the point where the Sacramento Kings (whom the Lakers played) were able to snag rebounds that would've wound up in Howard's mitts under normal circumstances.
To be sure, the Kings are no slouches in this regard; they were second in offensive rebounds per game and sixth in offensive rebound percentage last season.
Still, if all's right with Dwight, you won't likely see him giving up plays like the one above to anyone, especially not to rookies.
Luckily (or not) for Dwight, he'll get to test his timing and measure his progress against a well-known opponent—Eddy Curry. He would've been matched up against Chris Kaman had the stringy-haired center not come up lame with a right calf strain.
Interestingly enough, Curry is one of few big men who can claim to have bested Howard head-to-head, at least in some respects. In 11 career meetings, Curry has come away with more points (19.1 to 17.5), a higher field-goal percentage (.661 to .585) and just as many free-throw attempts (8.2).
Then again, Howard has owned Curry in rebounding (13.3 to 5.8) and shot-blocking (2.1 to 0.5).
And there's one not-so-small caveat to all this—these two haven't gone toe-to-toe in more than four and a half years, in which time Howard has emerged as the most dominant big man in basketball while Curry has fallen off a frickin' cliff.
Curry was solid in his first preseason start with the Dallas Mavericks (11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes), but will have to come much harder than that on Tuesday if Howard's going to be at all challenged down low.
Otherwise, it'll be high time for Dwight to exact his revenge on the team against whom he first showed signs of back trouble this past spring.
With the likes of Eddy Curry and Bernard James marking him, Dwight should have every opportunity to strut his stuff in the pick-and-roll with fellow Lakers newcomer Steve Nash.
In these two, the Lakers have managed to pair arguably the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the game (Nash) with the best pick-and-roll finisher on the planet (Howard).
Those two should have plenty of fun playing together, seeing as how neither has had quite the caliber of partner as the other. Nash came close during Amar'e Stoudemire's heyday with the Phoenix Suns. Howard, on the other hand, had his best days with the Orlando Magic next to Jameer Nelson, who'd be lucky to sniff Nash's jock on a good day.
If the preseason results are any indication, Howard and Nash should be quite the duo on opening night.
You may have noticed in the video of Dwight's first points as a Laker that Pau Gasol delivered the alley-oop pass. He, too, should enjoy having Howard by his side.
To be sure, pairing Pau and Dwight isn't a slam dunk on all fronts. Gasol spent much of last season toiling in the mid-range and in the high post while ceding the paint to Andrew Bynum, a tremendous back-to-the-basket talent in his own right. Chances are, Gasol will be asked to sacrifice his own game to make room for Howard's.
Nonetheless, Pau should see his fair share of touches in the low post, even with Dwight on the roster. Howard's a solid post-up player, but is at his best when bowling his way to the basket, either while facing up one-on-one or after setting a jarring screen up top.
And after all the success Gasol enjoyed in the two-man game with Bynum (see video), it's tough not to imagine having a field day with a quicker, more athletic big on the receiving end of those pinpoint lob passes.
Free-throw shooting would hardly be a matter of pointed interest for most players, though it remains one for the perennial foul-shot-poor Dwight Howard.
The 2011-12 season marked the first time in Howard's career that he failed to hit more than half of his free-throw attempts. His career percentage prior to last season (.598) was nothing to write home about, but was far more respectable than what he turned in most recently.
Perhaps the dip stemmed from the drama and distraction of the "Dwightmare." Perhaps the discomfort in his back affected him for far longer and far worse than anyone knew.
Whatever the case may be, the Lakers say that Howard has been working diligently on his freebies and has shown considerable improvement so far. As Lakers assistant Chuck Person recently told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Howard has converted approximately 80 percent of his attempts from the stripe this month when counting those he's taken in games, team scrimmages and individual practice sessions.
Nobody will much care how well Dwight's been shooting in El Segundo if the results don't translate to game action. He hit just 3-of-8 in his preseason debut but was able to knock down 3-of-4 in his most recent appearance.
Howard's performance at the line on Tuesday will be an intriguing indicator of his focus and conditioning, especially late in games.
But mostly, it'll give Lakers fans an idea of whether or not they need to brace for the sort of consistent "clankitude" that the city hasn't seen since Shaquille O'Neal last suited up in purple and gold.
Let's be real, though—Dwight Howard's performance in a Lakers uniform will be judged not so much by how many pick-and-rolls he finishes or how many free throws he hits, but rather by how many points he prevents on the other end.
The Lakers were merely middle-of-the-pack in defensive efficiency last season, according to Team Rankings, even with Mike Brown, a vaunted defensive guru, calling the shots from the sideline. In Brown's defense, he didn't exactly have the practice time at his disposal necessary to fully instill the defensive principles for which he's known.
Neither did he have the talent to do so. That hasn't exactly changed, what with Steve Nash replacing Derek Fisher and Ramon Sessions and Kobe Bryant another year older and hobbled by a foot injury.
But Metta World Peace looks to be in better condition and Pau Gasol remains underrated at his position.
And...oh yeah, that Dwight guy. Something about three Defensive Player of the Year awards. He recently opined to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com about seeing his streak of DPOYs end last season, with Tyson Chandler stealing his thunder, and seems motivated to start anew in 2012-13.
He'll have every opportunity to have a Chandler-like effect on the Lakers, and then some. Tyson earned the honor for anchoring a New York Knicks squad that shot from 22nd in defensive efficiency prior to his arrival to seventh in his first season, despite playing alongside a slew of sieves, most notably Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.
If Howard can have anywhere near that level of impact this season, he'll have the award back in his possession, and perhaps another trophy (or two) to boot. Tuesday's opener against a shorthanded Mavs team will be the perfect opportunity for him to show the world what he can do.