Dwight Howard Must Return to Full Strength for Lakers to Become Title Contenders

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 02:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts as he is called for a foul during a 113-103 loss to the Orlando Magic at Staples Center on December 2, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

When Steve Nash made his long-awaited return to the Los Angeles Lakers lineup on Saturday night, it appeared things were finally looking up in L.A. No sooner had hope returned when Dwight Howard revealed he's still struggling with his health.

In an interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, the superstar center said he's still getting tired far more easily than he has in the past and tingling in his legs persists after a procedure on his back. Although not shocking, it's certainly worrisome news.

"I'm still in that process," Howard said in an extensive interview with USA TODAY Sports at the team's practice facility. "People don't understand that. They just come out and see me make a couple dunks and blocks and say, 'Oh, he's back.' But it does take a while for all this stuff to heal. This is not something easy, so I understand that. It will come."

When the Lakers brought in Howard and Nash during the offseason it was expected the dynamic duo would move Los Angeles back into the top-tier conversation alongside the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. Injuries have prevented that.

Instead, the Lakers are one game below .500 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Even though it's tough to imagine them missing the playoffs altogether, they won't be true title contenders unless Howard can get back to full strength.

The six-time All-Star sports his lowest scoring average since 2006-07 and his lowest rebounding average since his rookie reason (2004-05). While he has still been productive, he hasn't been the dominant force the Lakers were expecting.

His high number of fouls—nearly four per game, a career high—is another stat that illustrates he isn't where he needs to be. Since he isn't able to rely on his athleticism nearly as much, he's forced to play a more physical, foul-prone approach in the post.

While Nash's return will provide a boost and Kobe Bryant will continue to carry the load, the Lakers won't reach their potential unless Howard is able to control the paint like he did during his time with the Orlando Magic.

The Lakers' defense is currently giving up just a shade under 100 points per game, a four-point increase from last season. That must change if they are going to establish themselves alongside the Heat and Thunder, and Howard needs to lead the charge.

He won't be able to do it if he continues to battle lingering injury concerns, however. He just isn't the same player right now, and the fact he's willing to publicly admit he hasn't completely overcome his back issues is a sign he understands that.

The Lakers have several problems they must address in the coming months, but no storyline will be bigger than Howard's health.