With a star-studded starting lineup, some thought that the Los Angeles Lakers would have a chance to win 70 games this season. But after going 9-13 through its first 22 games, that is already a mathematical impossibility. Now seems like an appropriate time to grade Dwight Howard's first quarter season with the Lakers.
Along with Steve Nash, Howard was acquired to help Kobe Bryant win his sixth championship ring and help the Lakers win its 17th. That 17th banner would tie the Lakers with the Boston Celtics as the NBA's most winningest franchise, so it's important for the franchise, as well.
And obviously, the elephant in the room is Howard's impending free agency. By rule, the Lakers will be able to offer Howard a five-year deal worth about $117 million this summer—about $30 million more than any other team would be able to offer him.
Pro players don't normally leave that kind of coin on the table, but here's the truth: The Lakers have incredible pressure to win, from top to bottom. Most of the pressure has to do with Bryant's advancing age, but a lot of it also has to do with Howard's free agency.
If the losses continue to pile up and Howard continues to be frustrated, who knows what he'll do once he becomes an unrestricted agree agent?
Regardless, after stumbling off the blocks, it's very fair to ask whether the Lakers are struggling despite Howard, or because of him.
Entering play on Dec. 12, Howard is averaging 18.4 points per game this season. That's below the 20.6 points he averaged last season as a member of the Orlando Magic, but Howard is also getting two fewer shot attempts, so the lower scoring shouldn't be much of a surprise.
The most concerning thing about Howard's offensive productivity is his free-throw shooting. Over the course of his nine-year career, Howard has made 58.4 percent of his free throws. However, since shooting 59.6 percent from the free-throw line over the course of the 2010-11 season, Howard made 49.1 percent of his free-throws last season and, entering play on Dec. 12, has made just 47.1 percent of his attempts this season.
His problems from the line were never more evident than on Dec. 3. The Lakers lost to the Orlando Magic at Staples Center. Howard was just 9-of-21 from the free-throw line and the Magic successfully employed the "Hack-A-Howard" strategy to Dwight's frustration.
That simply can't happen.
Though he is still universally regarded as being the top center in the NBA, the fact of the matter is that thus far, the Lakers have gotten a worse Howard than they thought they would be getting.
Things should improve, though. Howard seems to be making progress with his back, which he said, about six weeks ago, was still “real achy” on some days. As of Dec. 12, Howard has only played 22 games with the Lakers after being out of action since April 7.
As we head toward the All-Star break, Howard’s timing, conditioning and agility should continue to improve.
Once Steve Nash returns, the Lakers should also have one of the best pick-and-roll combinations in the league, and Howard’s utilization and scoring will probably increase as a result.
Thus far, offensively, he’s contributed well, but he needs to regain his explosiveness and absolutely must improve his free-throw shooting.
Entering play on Dec. 12, the Lakers are 9-13 and are allowing opponents to score 98.8 points per game. As a team, the Lakers are rotating slowly and are easily beaten with cross-court passes, backdoor cuts and dribble penetration.
Howard is a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, having won the award three consecutive years (2009-11). He is a very capable anchor, but he cannot single-handedly make the Lakers a defensive stalwart.
Coach Mike D’Antoni has also had a somewhat public feud with Pau Gasol, and Antawn Jamison has seen more minutes. D’Antoni prefers Jamison as a power forward playing with Howard because of Jamison’s offensive proficiency from the perimeter.
Jamison, however, is regarded as a poor defender. The Lakers also continue to struggle with younger, more athletic teams, and opposing backcourts that feature younger, quicker guards have been the Lakers' Kryptonite.
Although Howard is still a bit slow and his timing and explosiveness are somewhat lacking, it’s difficult to argue with the 2.6 blocks per game or the 1.0 steal per game he is averaging as of Dec. 12.
He’s doing his part on the defensive end.
Perhaps that’s why he was noticeably frustrated after the Lakers' 110-117 loss to the Utah Jazz on Dec. 9.
Howard is renowned for his antics and fun-loving demeanor. And while there is nothing wrong with having a good time with teammates, teams tend to take on the tone of its best players.
For this team, being the 12th seed in the NBA’s Western Conference is no laughing matter, and that's exactly where the Lakers stand on Dec. 12 after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 11.
The time for laughing is over. Howard needs to help lead the team.
And along the same line, Howard’s relationship with Bryant deserves to be mentioned. In the Lakers' recent win over the New Orleans Hornets back on Dec. 5, Howard scolded Bryant for missing a defensive assignment, and the two spent a few game minutes arguing about what transpired on the floor.
The end result was a positive for the Lakers, though, as things tightened up and they won a 103-87 decision.
How one grades Howard’s intangibles depends on what the expectations of him are in the eyes of the beholder. One of the selling points that Lakers legend Magic Johnson used to sell Howard on agreeing to join the Lakers was essentially agreeing to be Bryant’s Robin until he’s ready to retire.
And surprisingly, that’s something that Bryant went on the record and said explicitly.
So, in terms of leadership, all one can really hope for from Howard is for him to continue to work hard on an individual level and do his best to get back into top condition. To an extent, it's up to his teammates and his coach to put in a lot of the other work necessary to make the Lakers one of the West's top teams again.
Based on his performance over the past nine games—he’s averaging 18.7 points and 13.8 rebounds and shooting 55 percent from the field—it seems fair to say that Howard is doing his part.
The NBA has a close eye on the Lakers, so every loss is going to be discussed and dissected. After 22 games, there are some very valid reasons for concern, but ultimately, the Lakers are just too talented to not figure it out.
With the recent news that Steve Nash may be out another two weeks breaking, the Lakers will need to bide time.
But although they’ve continued to lose at an alarming rate, defensive lapses and deficiencies, a changing of the head coach and offensive systems and key injuries to both Nash and Gasol are more to blame for the Lakers' slow start than Howard.
Though he’s nowhere near 100 percent, it’s probably fair to say that, aside from his poor free-throw shooting, he’s playing almost as well as the Lakers could have hoped for, considering he’s still getting his timing back following his back surgery.