Dwight Howard's Health Holds the Key to Lakers' Championship Hopes

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2012

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 22:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers warms up before their game against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on December 22, 2012 in Oakland, 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Dwight Howard may not have missed a minute of action in the 2012-13 NBA season due to injury, but that doesn't mean that the Los Angeles Lakers' star is fully healed from his back surgery last April.

In a candid interview with USA Today's Sam Amick, the 27-year-old center admitted that his recovery is still very much a work in progress:

I'm still in that [healing] process. 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.

While Howard's candor is a refreshing surprise, his lack of health is the opposite of that. All realistic pundits knew it would take time for Howard to return to form—especially after his recovery went so slowly.

However, Howard still being admittedly less than 100 percent has to be scary for the Lakers' championship hopes. 

Yes, I said championship hopes. The sky-falling-down predictions of this 14-14 Lakers team missing the playoffs are kind of understandable, but ultimately laughable. This is a team that has the seventh-best point differential in the NBA and has significantly underperformed its Pythagorean Expectation

What's more, this wasn't a team built to make the playoffs; it was one built to win championships. Whether the Lakers go out in the first round, second round or don't make the playoffs at all, anything less than a Larry O'Brien Trophy is an unmitigated failure. 

So we're just going to eliminate the word "playoff contention" from our vocabularies right now. The Lakers are making the playoffs, barring some historical anomaly.

Will they win the championship? That seems far more doubtful at this point, and the reason for that is wholly contingent on the health of Howard. 

Ever since Mike D'Antoni took over as the Lakers' head coach, the team was playing the proverbial waiting game while Steve Nash returned from a fractured shin. With Darius Morris, Steve Blake and Chris Duhon manning the point guard role, it was theorized that all L.A. needed was its 38-year-old point guard to right the ship.

The Lakers' 2-0 record with Nash somewhat backs up that theory, and Nash is undoubtedly a marked upgrade from the previous point guard regime. However, the numbers simply don't bear that out in a way that most fans would hope.

Even with Nash playing just a mere four games on the season, the Lakers still rank sixth in the league in offensive efficiency and fifth in points per game. Although those rankings will ostensibly go higher with Nash manning the point instead of the previous pu-pu platter, his presence will not fix the Lakers' disconcerting defensive troubles.

Through Christmas Day, D'Antoni's squad has given up 102 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 15th in the NBA. From a purely logical standpoint, a super elite offense—which the Lakers could have with Nash running the point—and a mediocre defense is enough to make a deep playoff run.

Is it enough to win a championship, though? History tells us no.

Neil Paine's brilliant research over at basketball-reference.com tells us that one of the most overwrought sports cliches actually rings true in the NBA: "Defense wins championships." Obviously, offense matters, too, and Paine's research shows that defense is only slightly more important than the other end of the floor.

However, just for reference, here is a look at where the last decade's worth of NBA champions ranked in defensive efficiency:

Champion Year Defensive Efficiency Rank
Miami Heat 2011-12 97.1 4
Dallas Mavericks 2010-11 102.3 7
Los Angeles Lakers 2009-10 101.1 5 (tie)
Los Angeles Lakers 2008-09 101.9 5
Boston Celtics 2007-08 82.2 1
San Antonio Spurs 2006-07 84.4 2
Miami Heat 2005-06 89.4 16
San Antonio Spurs 2004-05 82.3 1
Detroit Pistons 2003-04 78.7 2
San Antonio Spurs 2002-03 83.3 2

As you can plainly see, nine out of the last 10 NBA champions have ranked within the top-10 in terms of defensive efficiency, and eight have ranked inside the top-five. The only model team for this season's Lakers is the 2005-06 Heat, and it's inarguable that this is a far more competitive championship field than the one Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal navigated through that season.

In other words, the Lakers are highly unlikely to win a championship without a marked improvement defensively, and I'm going to branch out here and say Nash's return won't exactly be a boon to the defensive efficiency ratings.

Instead, that onus will fall on Howard and his health. 

When 100 percent, D12 is the third-best player in the NBA behind only LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He's an uber-efficient defensive stalwart who changes every shot in the paint, runs the pick-and-roll better than just about every big man in NBA history and can make up for a ton of his teammates' deficiencies.

Chris Paul blows by Nash? A healthy Howard is there. Kobe Bryant gets beat on his umpteenth back cut? A healthy Howard is there.

I could go on just to fill the rule of three, but you get the point by now. While Howard's stats indicate he's mostly "back," it's those helping aspects of his game that have mostly been missing this season.

And it's those helping elements which also hold the key to the Lakers' postseason dreams and are wholly predicated on Howard's health. He's just not the same player that the team traded for...yet.

Will he become that? It's impossible to tell. Regardless, without a fully healthy D12 helping fix the Lakers' defensive deficiencies and being their best player, there won't be another banner going up in the Staples Center anytime soon.