Dwight Howard returned to the Los Angeles Lakers' starting lineup on Sunday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers after a shoulder injury sidelined the All-Star center for the past three games. Howard led the Lakers with 22 points and 14 rebounds, as Los Angeles snapped a six-game losing streak.
The Lakers currently hold a 16-21 overall record and sit in 10th place in the Western Conference. Los Angeles entered the season with high expectations, due in large part to the acquisition of Howard from Orlando.
When the Lakers acquired Howard this summer, many speculated on exactly when the center would be ready to play, as Howard missed the remainder of the 2011-12 season due to a back injury. Although he has played through the pain, its clear that the injuries are playing a factor in Howard's game.
But after an impressive performance on Sunday night, many questions may be asked. Is Dwight Howard really healthy? Have injuries played a major role in his performance? Is a full-strength Laker lineup really as good as people speculated before the season started?
The injury bug has plagued the Lakers all season. Not only was there speculation that Howard opened the season less than 100 percent, but Steve Nash fell victim to injury during the season opener against Dallas and sat out until late December. Nash's backup, Steve Blake, has also missed the majority of the season due to a torn abdominal muscle.
Now, the Lakers find themselves without two of their big men. Pau Gasol has yet to pass a concussion test and will miss his fifth consecutive game, while Jordan Hill is out for the remainder of the season after suffering a hip injury against Denver.
Having Dwight Howard back is a necessity for the struggling Lakers to bounce back. Despite the team's lack of success, Kobe Bryant has had an MVP-caliber season, leading the league in scoring. However, the team needs its other superstars to step up as well.
With a healthy Howard, the Lakers have the best center in the NBA. If at full strength, Howard brings a new element to the Lakers that we have only seen glimpses of this season.
Having both Howard and Nash in the starting lineup anywhere near full strength makes this a completely different team. Unfortunately, Howard's game may not be tuned to the coaching style of Mike D'Antoni.
D'Antoni's style of coaching clashes with Howard's style of play. Howard is a strong big man who does his best work in the paint. In the D'Antoni system of jump shooting, Howard may be out of his element.
Still, the great players find ways to succeed and hopefully Laker fans will see performances from Howard like the one on Sunday night. If healthy, the Lakers have one of the best and most athletic big men in the NBA.
A healthy Howard definitely gives new life to the Lakers' season.