Instead of contending for a title, Los Angeles continues to toil with the prospect of irrelevancy and Howard is on the forefront of such disappointment.
He was supposed to push the Lakers over the edge. Even in Nash's arrival, he was the most important addition Los Angeles made this offseason. He gave the franchise immediate hope as well as a cornerstone the team could believe in later.
But is Howard a capable cornerstone? Is he the franchise star this organization so desperately needs?
With each game that Kobe drops 30 or more points, it becomes much more difficult to imagine life without him. He has proved ageless and thus, appears seemingly immortal.
We know better, though. There will come a day when Bryant hangs up his laces and walks out of the Staples Center as a player for the last time. Though that prospective day changes depending on the mood Kobe is in, we can be sure that it's coming soon.
Once he leaves, Hollywood becomes Howard's town. It arguably is already.
Bryant takes a backseat to no one, but he'll be the first to admit that he'll defer to Howard when he needs to. He'll readily accept Howard's defensive opinions as fact. And he already understands that the big man serves as a beacon of hope for life after himself.
Yet is Howard deserving of such confidence, such respect? Is he both worthy and able to uphold the good name of this Lakers franchise?
The answer of "yes" seemed to be a mere formality upon his arrival. He was the most dominant big man in the league at the time and naturally the type of talent any team would embrace building a future around.
As the season as progressed, though, it has become abundantly clear that the Howard Los Angeles believed it was getting, is not the one it received.
At present, the center is averaging 17.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game on 56.3 percent shooting. Though those numbers represent a respectable level of production, they're not indicative of the dominant force Howard is believed to be.
Those 10.9 rebounds are the second-lowest totals of his career. His 17.3 points are a night are the third-lowest of his NBA tenure. For the first time since 2005-06, his team is allowing fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. And for the very first time of his career, his team is scoring more with him on the bench.
Such actualities are not indicative of a franchise star, but rather, a two-way liability. Is that what Howard has truly become? Is he now a shell of his former self?
Former coach and apparent friend Stan Van Gundy (via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times) suggested as much when he offered his own thoughts on Howard's recent performance:
"I don’t think he looks quite as explosive or as quick as he has in the past,” said Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando for five seasons before being fired in May. “Now, he’s still above almost everyone in the league at that size athletically, but he has not totally looked like himself to me.”
There's nothing wrong with Van Gundy's assessment, but there's nothing intricate about it either. Of course Howard isn't explosive; of course he isn't as effective.
Must we remind ourselves that Howard wasn't even supposed to be ready to start the season? He himself has (via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times) justifiably rebuffed earlier accusations that he's been nothing short of a disappointment:
Dwight Howard has a message for anybody criticizing him.
The Lakers center wanted to remind everybody he was still not 100 percent.
"I wasn't even supposed to be playing until January and I'm playing now. What do you expect?"
Is it not enough that he pushed through ever-present pain for the sake of the team?
The numbers suggest that Los Angeles is better without Howard on the floor. And perhaps the offense, right now, is. He doesn't have the same level of athleticism behind his movements and his knees are undoubtedly tired as he attempts to overcompensate for the pain in his back.
But that's all temporary. Allowing more points with on the floor isn't permanent. It can't be.
Remember, this is the same Howard who improved the Orlando Magic's defense by 6.8 points per 100 possessions. Even at a time when he could yield to the perpetual agony his back creates, he is one of only 13 players averaging a double-double. And he's the only player who in the league who is averaging at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. All the while suffering physically.
Do we honestly believe the Lakers would be better off without Howard or that he's actually hindering their two-way attack? Despite how Los Angeles scores or defends with him on the floor, his 3.3 win shares rank 25th in the NBA. That's more than Paul Pierce, Al Jefferson and LaMarcus Aldridge can say. That's more than Dwyane Wade can even say.
So where some are disgusted, depressed and discouraged, I'm enlivened. If the postseason began today, the sub-.500 Lakers wouldn't be in it, and yet there is cause for a sense of emboldened optimism in Tinseltown.
In Howard, I see a dominant big man who has already carried a team both statistically and emotionally on his own. I see a man who has put the well-being of his team before his health. I see a player who continues to perform admirably in the face of adversity.
I see a person who is more than equipped to backpack the Lakers toward a championship.
"We have to learn how to win together," Howard (via Bolch) had said. "It takes time. It's going to click one day and all this mess will be over with."
That "one day" Howard speaks of is going to come.
And maybe then we can put the mendacious notion that Howard cannot become the player the Lakers need him to be to bed.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 1, 2013.
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