The annals of NBA history are littered with cautionary tales of tall and talented players who could have accomplished much more had they not been betrayed by their own bodies. Could Los Angeles Lakers big man Dwight Howard be the next victim of circumstance?
The irony of the Los Angeles Lakers' visit to the Brooklyn Nets without Dwight Howard on Tuesday wasn't lost on anyone who has paid attention to the All-Star center over the last year or so. It was the third time in as many games that D12 spent an evening in warmups on account of a partially torn labrum.
And that's no joke for Howard or the Lakers.
The physically taxing responsibilities of the typical NBA center (i.e. rebounding, blocking shots, setting screens) only compound the pressures placed on such unusually large frames by the seemingly simple acts as running, jumping and shuffling side to side.
The Lakers, of all franchises, should know what can and often does happen to big men. They essentially acquired Howard by sending away Andrew Bynum, a seven-footer with now-chronic knee problems.
Bynum played in just 62.1 percent of his team's regular-season games between 2007 and 2011 on account of his knees, and he will see that percentage dip further as the Philadelphia 76ers await his 2012-13 season debut.
O'Neal's issues with his extremities, brought on by the wear and tear of being a man of his size at his particular position, were only exacerbated by his questionable conditioning regime.
Long before Shaq was even a twinkle in his mother's eye, George Mikan was battling through his own injury issues in Minneapolis. The Hall of Famer's career was limited to eight-and-a-half seasons during a 10-year span by stitch-worthy gashes and broken bones.
In between, the Lakers were blessed to employ two all-time greats (Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) whose collective durability stands as the exception that proves the rule of ruin for NBA big men.
The Big Dipper missed more than 10 games just once during his 14-year stint in the Association and dominated smaller, slower, less physical competition with his legendary combination of size, strength, athleticism and durability.
The Captain, on the other hand, played 1,560 regular-season games (the second-most in NBA history) over the course of 20 seasons. He was aided as much by his career-long regime of yoga and stretching as by his ability to dodge damage to his thin frame via his unstoppable "Sky Hook."
By all accounts, Howard has long taken meticulous care of a frame that, while a few inches shorter than those of Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar, is blessed with agility, leaping ability, grace and sheer power.
But, unlike Wilt, Dwight has played during an era that, while not exactly replete with gifted giants, isn't exactly short on those big and strong enough to make him pay for his preferred style of play. And, unlike Kareem, Howard lacks a signature move or any dependable perimeter skills that would allow him to steer clear of the beatings he's taken on a nightly basis for over eight seasons.
It's no great surprise, then, that one of the sturdiest centers the sport has ever seen has recently fallen victim to physical follies. Howard has never been all that effective away from the basket, particularly on the offensive end. Like most who play predominantly in the paint, then, Howard is subjected to far more physical contact than the norm.
Hence, the ravages of time have left Howard with a spine that required major surgery and a partial tear of a major muscle in his shoulder that will land him back on the operating table at some point.
His productivity (16.5 points on 57.7 percent shooting from the field, a league-leading 11.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks in 34.7 minutes per game) is still top-notch compared to that of the average starter at his position.
By Howard's lofty standards, though, that leaves much to be desired. Remember, this is a guy who came into the campaign having averaged better than 20 points and around 14 rebounds per game in four of the previous five seasons.
This is a guy who would have been a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and earned first-team All-Defensive honors in 2011-12 ahead of Tyson Chandler, who stopped Howard's streak of DPOYs.
Nowadays, Dwight moves slowly and gingerly at times, often looking disinterested.
He can get off the floor for a big block, perfectly defend a pick-and-roll or contain a quick guard, but no longer does he do all of these things consistently. The slow recovery of his back has presumably made it more difficult for Dwight to move his feet, leading him to reach with his hands and pick up fouls more frequently than he ever has.
As a result, the Lakers have allowed 101.8 points per 100 possessions when Howard's on the floor. If that number holds, it'll mark the first time since 2005-06 that Dwight has turned in a defensive rating over 100.
To be sure, that isn't entirely Dwight's fault, as that stat takes into account the overall performance of the team around him. But it does point to a potential sea change in Howard's reputation as a singularly destructive force.
Will Dwight ever become that player again? Can he, even?
On the one hand, there's every reason to believe that Dwight will find his old self soon enough. Perhaps his healing has been hindered by his need to acclimate himself to a new environment with new teammates, new expectations and new demands.
He turned 27 this past December, which would seem to place him at the cusp of his professional prime. He's a hard worker; a guy who follows doctor's orders at every turn.
On the other hand, big men, like most players in the NBA, simply don't deal well with major injuries. These back and shoulder problems would qualify as Howard's first two in that particular category.
But, typically speaking, one injury tends to beget another by imposing an imbalance on the body. Such imbalances are magnified by greater size, not to mention the sorts of stresses and pressures that such size implies.
Even if Dwight never regains the form from his foremost days in Florida, though, he'll be well worth whatever trouble (financial or otherwise) the Lakers would incur from his retention. He's still light on his feet for a man of his stature, with the skill, ability and work ethic to be a double-double machine.
More importantly, big men like Howard are still exceedingly rare in the NBA, and having one of his impact can and does give a team a decisive advantage over the majority that don't. For all the kerfuffle over the popularization of small ball in the Association, size-deprived teams like the Miami Heat are still exceedingly vulnerable against those with big men who can protect the rim defensively and attack it offensively.
While guards and wings see their value decline as their former agility and athleticism escapes them, centers like Howard will always be of some service because they'll always have their extraordinary size on which to rely. For them, the bulk put on by the aging process can be a help rather than a hindrance, since it allows one to shift from dominating with jumps to doing so with, well, bumps.
In a way, Dwight is fortunate to have suffered his particular maladies and not others, like foot and knee problems, that are all too common among bigs. Bill Walton and Yao Ming were both on their way to greatness in their respective eras, but were cut short by breaks and fractures in their feet. Brook Lopez's development was derailed by similar injuries in 2011-12.
Not that Lopez, against whom the Lakers will play without Howard, is on their level. Nor is Andrew Bogut, though repeated problems with his ankle have nonetheless stunted the growth of a player once chosen first overall in the NBA draft ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
We won't know with any certainty for some time whether Howard falls in with such unfortunate anecdotes as these, or if his body proves to be as extraordinary in recovery as it once seemed in staving off setbacks. But if the past has any bearing on the present whatsoever, it seems safer to assume the former than to expect the latter.
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