There are many factors that will lead to the Los Angeles Lakers' eventual resurgence. But the most important one is Dwight Howard. He, after all, is the difference between this year's team and the one that fell short in 2011-12.
And now that almost all of the missing pieces are back in action, it's time to start that comeback.
Pau Gasol is back. Steve Nash will be back imminently. And when they return, there will be no more excuses for mediocrity.
Fortunately, Howard doesn't appear to think that there will be any—mediocrity or excuses.
The Lakers didn't expect to be 12-14 at this point. They didn't expect to see Kobe Bryant still doing everything himself. But the new team has not yet been assembled. It has already taken a couple of months for Kobe and Howard to become accustomed to each other, and now it's going to take even more time for Nash to fit into the mix—and Gasol, too.
But Howard is the difference-maker. Howard is the best center in the league, the guy with the requisite youth and talent to help L.A. contend with the new top guns in the Western Conference.
And now, finally, Howard seems to believe that this team can do it, once it gets all the necessary pieces in place. He finally has the right attitude to help build a contender.
This week, Howard spoke extensively with the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus about the Lakers' outlook. By all indications, he's well aware of what the Lakers have to do in order to rebound, and he understands how to get the job done:
The more we play together, the more we grow as a team. We'll get more confidence in our offense and confidence in each other, to where we won't have to call any plays. That's what we're trying to build to right now; we just go out there and the offense just flows.
Team—that's a word you like hearing from Howard. The recognition that it's not all about him. That he's part of a machine that is still learning how to function. That he believes it will learn to function properly.
Nobody really expects this Lakers team to continue to struggle the way it has been. When a bunch of superstars are thrown onto the same roster, most expect immediate excellence, but it takes time to build the chemistry required to win.
It also requires recognition of the fact that it takes work to succeed, not just talent.
It can be hard to stay positive in the face of what the Lakers are currently dealing with.
We've seen superstar-laden teams fail in the past, and it's admittedly difficult to avoid thinking about everything that could keep going wrong when you're two games under .500 and the whole sports world is talking about what an embarrassment your team is.
But part of building a contender is learning how to stay positive. And Howard, by all indications, is doing just that.
He seems ready and willing to put in that work. He seems like he's not just expecting the Lakers to roll. As he told Pincus, quoting Batman, "'The night is darkest right before dawn.'"
Dawn is approaching for the Lakers, and Howard will be at the center of it.