Dwight Howard's right shoulder has been about as reliable as Pau Gasol's attitude this season. And much like Gasol's disposition, Howard's shoulder is only going to become a bigger problem for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Though Howard's back was supposed to be the primary reason for concern, it's been his shoulder that has caused the most conflict.
Initially, the torn labrum in his right shoulder was supposed to be just a minor hurdle. He missed about a week and that was supposed to be the end of it.
Or so the Lakers thought.
Howard has reaggravated that same injury on a number of occasions in less than a one-month span, most recently in Los Angeles' fourth-quarter collapse against the Phoenix Suns (via Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register).
Each time the big man has irritated that pesky shoulder of his, the repercussions have been considered minor. He hasn't missed any extended time since the original tear, nor has he seemed to favor the injury while pursuing rebounds or contesting shots.
According to Kevin Ding (h/t Sulia.com), this incident is to be no exception:
Dwight said this is the most pain he has felt in shoulder since he initially injured it.
But pain has always gone away the next day and improved after that, so no reason to believe this time with the shoulder will be any different.
Dwight said flatly that he is not considering having surgery on the shoulder or shutting himself down. He is hopeful the pain will go away so he can play -- though he stressed it is a lot of pain right now.
Per Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni reiterated that he does not expect Howard's shoulder to be a major problem moving forward.
D'Antoni on Dwight's shoulder: "My understanding is, it hurts, it'll go away in a couple of days and he can play."— Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) January 31, 2013
Forgive me for going against the grain here, but there's no way Howard's injury ceases to be an issue. If anything, it's only going to get worse.
That Howard readily admitted this was the "most pain" he felt since the first injury is cause for alarm. That he had to assert he wouldn't undergo surgery or miss any games is cause for what borders on panic.
Intending to play undoubtedly quells part of the anxiety involved here, yet it's actually cause for more. He's already playing through a not-yet-ameliorated back issue and attempting to power through this trauma has done nothing but diminish the certainty behind his presence.
Howard didn't just injure his shoulder, come back and tweak it again. He's reinjured himself multiple times to the point where he can't play. How is that fine? How is a recurring injury not an issue for a team attempting to make a championship push from outside the playoff bubble?
Color me glass-half-empty, but I'm not of the mind that the Lakers can begin to solve the rest of their problems while coping with Howard's shoulder. They couldn't even hold a five-point lead when he came out of the game against the Suns. How are they supposed to operate amidst that equivocation?
Some nights, we believed Howard's health to have improved, even bought into the theory that he's approaching full strength. But he's nowhere near it, because he hasn't given himself or been afforded the luxury of a healing.
Remember, this is the same Howard who told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times earlier in the season that his back was supposed to keep him sidelined until January:
Dwight Howard has a message for anybody criticizing him.
The Lakers center wanted to remind everybody he was still not 100%.
"I wasn't even supposed to be playing until January and I'm playing now. What do you expect?" he said after the Lakers' shoot-around Thursday afternoon.
With the number of times Howard has reminded us of his ongoing hindrances, I'm not about to cloak him in a shield of unconditional chivalry. And why should any of us?
Neither the Lakers nor Howard are doing themselves any favors by allowing (or encouraging) the tower to play through the pain. Assuming his back is completely healed (it's not), are we actually supposed to accept that the same shoulder injury that keeps cropping up and forcing him out of games isn't a genuine problem?
Not at all. Not when that shoulder is forcing his removal and assisting in losses. And most certainly not when Howard continues to reiterate (via Rachel Shuster of USA Today) the pain he is in:
"Everything on (the right) side (of my body) is hurting pretty bad right now," Howard told reporters of what was his worst pain since the original injury came Jan. 4 in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
"I'm going to try as much as I can but I don't want to cause more damage to my shoulder," said Howard, averaging 16.5 points, his lowest since 2005-06 and 11.9 rebounds, his lowest since his rookie 2005-06 season.
"I don't want to (miss any games), but we'll see."
And Howard didn't rule out surgery, which he is quite familiar with after an offseason dealing with back trouble. "Not right now," he said.
Hardly the same optimistic tune he was initially displaying, no?
Avoiding surgery "right now" is far different from flatly admitting you don't need it, because Howard might. Nevertheless, going under the knife isn't an option. "Not right now."
As was painfully obvious in Phoenix, Los Angeles is hard-pressed to maintain leads without Howard on the floor, let alone build them. The Lakers are allowing nearly four points per 100 possessions fewer with him on the court, and he's easily their most valuable form of protection at the rim. So no, they can't carry on without him.
But can they even succeed with him? Can they emerge as a contender despite one of their best players being forced in and out of games?
Of course not.
Will Dwight Howard's shoulder get better or worse as the season goes on?
Kobe Bryant (via Shuster) recounted how he had gone through similar issues in the past, and this is one of those injuries that's going to be an "all-season thing." If that's his attempt to diminish the significance of the injury or downplay its severity, then he failed. Miserably.
Knowing that Howard must continue to battle through yet another injury, that he will be susceptible to being sidelined at a moment's notice is anything but comforting.
And acknowledging that the pain has increased in asperity and frequency is more disquieting still.
"That's just how it's going to be," Kobe (via Shuster) said about Howard's injury.
Which is why I hope the Lakers are prepared to stave off the pitfalls of mediocrity sans Howard.
Until his shoulder (and back) is completely mended, that's just how it will have to be.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com, unless otherwise noted.