By most accounts, the Lakers are not a good defensive team. They're currently 20th in the NBA with 106.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, a crippling notion for a team that was supposed to improve defensively under Howard's control.
Truth be told, however, the blame for Los Angeles' defensive woes cannot be put upon Howard's shoulders.
As the behemoth himself notes (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com), everyone in Los Angeles has to step up their defensive awareness:
"Guys got to be in the right spots and they have to be taught it and it has to be something that you practice on so guys can understand," Howard said, visibly frustrated as he spoke. "They have to go through it. You just can't talk about defense or talk about where to go. You actually have to show guys where to go."
Could Howard's sentiments be interpreted as a shot at his team or head coach Mike D'Antoni? Absolutely, but regardless of his intentions, his words hold merit nonetheless.
This team has to pick up the defensive intensity, they have to understand the concept of rotations, fighting over screens and communication. They have to pick up on the groundwork that Howard himself is laying. They must emulate the effort that he and his injured back are continuing to put forth.
Yes, the Lakers are allowing 2.7 points more per 100 possessions with Howard on the court, a differential that is troubling. But that doesn't even begin to tell the entire story.
Los Angeles is allowing 107.1 points per 48 minutes with Howard off the floor compared to 106.4 with him on. A huge difference? Not at all, but it is irrefutable evidence that Howard makes his defensive presence felt when on the court.
Just as importantly, the center accounts 61 percent of the Lakers' blocks and 36 percent of their total rebounds when on the floor. Opponents' offensive rebounding percentage improves by 3.5 points when he takes a seat as well.
Good, I wouldn't expect you to be. Not completely.
Because Howard's true value on the defensive end has been distorted by the absence of Steve Nash.
Though the point guard is considered a laughable defender to some—he's actually not terrible—the fact is he's the glue that prevents Los Angeles' offensive dynamic from crumbling under the weight of its own complexity. He is widely considered the most important piece to Los Angeles' puzzle.
Nash is going to be on the floor a lot. Thus, what matters most is the effectiveness of the Lakers' defense when he is in the game.
Of the two most used (by far) Nash-included lineups, Howard plays in one, where he and Nash play alongside Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol.
In that one, Los Angeles is outscoring their opponents by six points per 100 possessions, grabbing 10.8 more defensive rebounds and forcing 4.5 more turnovers.
Once the Lakers move to their second-most Nash-used lineup, though, everything changes.
This particular lineup sees the Lakers shift Gasol to center while substituting Howard for Jodie Meeks. All in the name of perpetuating D'Antoni's love for the one-in, four-out blueprint. But where such a lineup is supposed to play to the team's systematic strengths, it actually fails them.
Within that lineup, Los Angeles is being outscored by 26.1 points per 100 possessions, a 32.1-point swing. As if that's not enough, that five-man unit finds itself being out-manned on the defensive glass to the tune 11.8 fewer boards, a difference of over 22 total rebounds.
That's insane. There's simply no other word for it.
Do the Lakers need Howard to stop pointing fingers at everyone? Do they need him to keep his emotions in check and avoid senseless fouls that culminate in his removal? Most definitely.
But they also need to start putting his unflattering, albeit painfully true, convictions into action:
"Our pick-and-roll defense wasn't great tonight," said Dwight Howard, who had to watch most of the second half from the locker room after being ejected for a flagrant-2 foul on Kenneth Faried in the third quarter. "The help wasn't there. The 'help the helper' wasn’t there. It just has to be better overall."
This is a player who has won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and whose teams haven't allowed more points with him on the floor since the 2007-08 campaign.
Simply put, he knows what he's talking about—he knows what he's doing. And the Lakers are a better team overall when he's out on the floor, especially next to Nash.
Los Angeles' play has picked up a great deal over the last few games, but the team isn't going to reach its ceiling, isn't going to restore faith in its defense unless Howard becomes the focal point.
If that dictates D'Antoni defer to his insight in practice, then so be it. If that involves Kobe, Nash and even Metta obliging to his every on-court demand, then so be it as well.
Howard was brought into Los Angeles to reverse the team's defensive narrative. His offensive potential was an added bonus, but the Lakers were in dire need of a defensive identity more than anything.
"We still got it," Bryant said when asked if the Lakers still lacked defensive purpose after their loss to the Denver Nuggets. "Tonight was just a tough one."
That may be true. Los Angeles' string of defensive woes could be but a blemish on an otherwise spotless suit of armor. The Lakers may still possess a defensive identity.
Or Kobe could be wrong. This team could be headed down the path of permanent defensive ineptitude. We don't really know.
What we do know is that the Lakers' chances of transposing their current defensive precedent, temporary or not, become much greater if they allow Howard to be the defensive cure-all he was brought in to be.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of December 26, 2012.