Dwight Howard's play this season has been a huge reason for the lackluster performance by the Los Angeles Lakers, and if history is any kind of proof, it could be a long time before he's back to playing like his old self, if he ever does get back to that point.
Howard spent the offseason recovering from back surgery after a herniated disc was discovered as the source of his pain at the end of last season.
Of course, after a tumultuous summer, Dwight eventually ended up with the Lakers and even got to play in a few preseason games and the season opener. Things couldn't have looked better for Dwight.
He looked a little bit sluggish out of the gate, possibly overly cautious at times.
The thunderous dunks weren't there, he was losing guys on defense and he was visibly unable to trek up and down the court with some of the younger, faster guards. In short, he didn't look right.
The narrative was that he was still recovering, that pain after back surgery isn't something that just goes away; it's something that has to be remedied bit by bit.
We continued to wait, and Dwight continued to look as if there were a few bricks in his back pockets. The above-the-rim game just wasn't there, and it wasn't showing many signs of coming back for any period of time:
Dwight has had one of the largest fall offs I've seen for a relatively young player. A back injury is no joke.— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) January 20, 2013
Admittedly, there are days when Dwight looks a lot better than he has for the majority of the season, and he's even been able to keep his numbers at a rate similar to the rest of his career.
If you look at just the stat sheet, you can pretty easily chalk his step backward to having to learn a new system and playing with new teammates.
He's scoring 17 points per game, which is a point below his career average and three points below what he averaged a season ago. With that, he's pulling down 12.3 rebounds (his career mark is 13 per game) and is actually above his average field-goal percentage, at 58.2 percent, and blocks, at 2.5 a game.
That's not really a bad season, but it's not like the magnificent seasons he's had in years past, and he's playing differently than he has in the past.
It's only really prudent to judge Howard's health based on how he looks and how he's playing, and there's a dramatic difference between this season and last.
Here are a few alley-oops thrown to Howard last season, both coming from Jameer Nelson.
In this one you can clearly see the full range of motion, the aggression and just the ability to get up above the rim and mash the ball through the hoop.
Once again, here's a full range of motion and unmeasurable aggression.
Now, let's take a look at a few 'oops from this season.
The trend for Howard this season has been to guide the ball into the hoop rather than take the aggressive, sometimes violent approach that he took in the past.
That's the same story in this one. He's merely an intermediary between the passer and the hoop rather than a vicious event in between.
Now, it's true that two points is two points, but this is also evidence of a diminished portion of Howard's game. A guy who was once one of the league's most athletic players is looking like your average NBA athlete at this point in the season.
Predicting back injury recover is a dangerous and difficult thing to do.
With the advancements in medicine in just the past few years, it's entirely possible that he recuperates and looks to be 95 percent of what he was by the time next season rolls around, and possibly sooner.
However, there's also the possibility that back problems linger, and he could see his career cut short like Brad Daugherty did back in the mid-90s.
Dwight's back problems aren't as extreme as Daugherty's, who had two herniated discs removed, as Howard already looks like he's going to be able to at least continue playing.
However, there's also the case of Larry Bird, who developed back problems late in his career thanks to an initial injury, and was out of the league in three years.
These things are definitely difficult to make a clear-cut judgement on without the help of a medical professional, but as of right now, it's quite obvious that Howard is struggling to regain that trademark explosiveness.