It's odd to think that anyone would have to implore Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, to dominate defensively. Yet, that seems to be the latest rallying cry for the Los Angeles Lakers as they attempt to motivate their hobbled All-Star center to be all he can be, shy of signing him up for the Army.
He was a great presence for us, good energy. You know, he's the anchor of the team. When he plays with energy, plays hard defensively, we're a different team. The only way for us to realize our aspirations is if he's that presence defensively.
Howard, whose return from a shoulder injury on January 13 helped the Lakers apply the tourniquet to what had been a six-game skid, hardly objected to Nash's assessment (via JA Adande):
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It is my role. Both ends. To help other guys get open [on offense]. On the defensive end, to make sure I'm communicating, talking, telling guys where they need me to be. I understand that they need me on the floor and they need me focused every night in order for us to win.
Once upon a time, such effort and energy from Dwight would've been part-and-parcel with his very presence on the floor. During his halcyon days with the Orlando Magic, Howard challenged shots, hedged on screens, disrupted passing lanes and barked orders from the middle as a matter of routine. With his combination of size, strength, agility, athleticism and keen understanding of timing and spacing, Howard became the greatest defensive force in the NBA.
Some of that tenacity appears to have fallen by the wayside in LA. Some nights, he looks focused and engaged, like an anchor of any sort should.
Sunday against the Cavs was one such night. He registered 22 points (on just nine shots) along with 14 rebounds, a pair of assists, a block and a steal in a shade under 30 minutes. In short, he was what Nash thought he should always be in service of a victorious outing.
Which he hasn't always been, and which goes to explain away some of LA's woes on the way to its current 16-21 mark.
There were the consecutive road games against the Sacramento Kings and the Memphis Grizzlies in November, when he registered a combined 14 points and 13 rebounds while taking all of 11 shots from the field. There was the six-shot game in Denver against the Nuggets, wherein he tallied 12 points and seven boards, and the seven-shot game on New Year's Day opposite the Philadelphia 76ers, during which he corralled a solid 14 rebounds but managed all of seven points.
Not to mention the myriad other matchups in which Howard—in his often ill-fated attempt to assert himself as a traditional, back-to-the-basket center—fumbled the ball away in the post when he got it and seemingly spent the evening aloof when he didn't.
To be sure, a portion of the blame for D12's inconsistent play in purple and gold belongs to his ailing back. Howard's health remains below full capacity in the wake of major surgery last April. He's shown flashes of the Dwight of old, jumping and moving like the defensive terror and All-World center to which the basketball world had become accustomed.
But far too often he's looked hobbled, if not patently average. On offense, his feet are as quick as ever, but he's often slow to gather and get off the floor when he has the ball down low.
Defensively, Howard's back surgery has made the seemingly simple act of getting down in a defensive stance and moving from side to side a difficult endeavor. Hence, he's been more apt to reach rather than slide with his lower body, leading to more reaching, more fouls and, in turn, more time spent on the pine.
Still, even injury can't account for the entirety of Dwight's struggles. The relative exoticism of his situation with the Lakers, coupled with the chaos that's surrounded the team all season, hasn't helped matters. Neither has his pursuit of legitimacy as an offensive force, despite his protestations in previous years regarding a footstep-following of Shaquille O'Neal.
That doesn't seem to register in Howard's mind anymore. He's in LA now, playing in Shaq's shadow. If he decides to re-sign with the Lakers this summer, Howard will spend the foreseeable future measuring (and being measured) against the gold standard of centers.
In Howard's mind, this may require that he be able to score on his own in the low post like O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and even George Mikan did before him.
But what binds those legends together in Lakers lore isn't how they went about throwing rotund objects through twine. Rather, they owe their respective spots in the purple-and-gold pantheon to the team success of which they were a (crucial) part, to the championships achieved through collective effort, rather than that of the individual variety.
Howard will have to fill a similar role for this Lakers squad if he and they are to live up to their considerable promise in any capacity going forward. LA doesn't need Dwight to command the ball as a low-post presence and all-around scorer on the offensive end.
Pau Gasol, despite his struggles this season, is more comfortable and far more skilled on the block and with his back to the basket than is Howard. And touches are already tough enough to come by, what with Steve Nash attempting to spread the wealth when Kobe Bryant isn't locked into hero-ball mode.
Not to say that Howard shouldn't have his chances. Offense may not be his specialty, per se, but he can be (and often is) an effective force at the rim.
The key for the Lakers is to utilize him less in isolation and more as a screener and finisher in pick-and-roll sets with Nash and Bryant. Dwight was downright destructive in the two-man game during his days in Orlando, thanks in no small part to his superb mobility and leaping ability for a man of his stature.
However much Howard scores, though, his point production will and must pale in comparison to his impact on the defensive end. Scoring is hardly LA's problem—the Lakers are sixth in offensive efficiency, scoring 106.3 points per 100 possessions, and play at the second-fastest pace (97.49 possessions per game) in the NBA.
The Lakers' woes congregate quite clearly on the defensive end. They rank 21st in defensive efficiency, surrendering 103.7 points per 100 possessions; 20th in opponent effective field goal percentage, which factors in the added value of three-point baskets; and 24th in opponent team turnover percentage.
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given the Lakers' defensive personnel coming into the season. Kobe's last two (or three) All-Defensive nods have been nothing if not ceremonial, and his effort on that end has regressed even further this season.
Nash, though an intelligent contributor as far as playing angles and lanes is concerned, was never much of an individual defender and, at 38, wasn't likely to improve in that regard as his speed and athleticism continued to wane. Gasol has the length to bother shots, but isn't exactly what one might call a "rim protector," and lacks the lateral foot speed to stay with "stretch fours."
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All of which made (and makes) Dwight The Defensive Specialist that much more crucial to LA's cause this season and beyond. According to NBA.com's stats database, the Lakers have allowed 4.7 fewer points per 48 minutes with Howard on the floor. His mere presence causes opponents, both tall and small, to think twice about whence they venture on the court, even if his return to pogo-stick status remains a work-in-progress.
What the Lakers need most from Howard isn't scoring, but rather rebounding and defensive intimidation. They need Howard to swat shots more than they need him to make his own. They need him to erase his teammates' defensive mistakes more than avoid his personal blunders on the offensive end.
Simply put, they need Dwight to play a particular part on this team. It's a part that's qualitatively different than those filled by his Lakers forebears, but one that's no less important in pursuit of a satisfactory end game for all.
Indeed, Steve Nash, ever the hoops equivalent of Nostradamus, is correct to heap so much praise and responsibility on Howard's meaty shoulders. The 26-year-old center is the youngest of LA's quadrant of All-Stars, and the one whose (potential) role is the most unique, and the most uniquely pivotal.
Now, it's up to Dwight to set aside his aspirations of go-to-scorer glitz and glamour, if only for a moment, to do what he does best.
The dirty work, that is.