The Los Angeles Lakers took a calculated risk by trading for Dwight Howard. They hoped his immense talent would overshadow any issues that arose after the center's eventful final seasons with the Orlando Magic. It hasn't paid off so far, and now the Lakers have to think about the future.
Are the seemingly constant distractions that come along with having Howard on the roster too much to make him a central figure in the franchise moving forward? That's the key question the Lakers must answer between now and season's end.
His numbers are down across the board, he has battled back and shoulder injuries, his role in the offense remains unsettled and his father recently made public comments to defend him. It has led to a circus atmosphere around the Lakers as they attempt to right the ship.
"The problem is the coach. (D’Antoni) needs to step in and say, ‘You guys have got to be quiet. We’re trying to secure something here. Dwight is probably looking at the coach, thinking, ‘What are you going to do?’ I promise, if that had been Stan Van Gundy, that wouldn’t have happened. (Howard) wouldn’t have been admonished publicly. I think the coach has a lot to do with who controls Kobe’s mouth right now."
Whether you agree with Bryant's initial thoughts about Howard or not, family members adding their opinion to the situation rarely has a positive impact. It just serves to make a minor disagreement into a major story, which is exactly what happened.
It doesn't matter what Howard or his father believe is fair. The Lakers are Bryant's team and he's going to call the shots for as long as he's on the roster. It appeared he was trying to motivate the star center and it backfired.
Then there's the issue of Howard's production. He's averaging just 16 points and 12 rebounds, which amounts to his least productive season since 2005-06. It's a major reason the Lakers haven't come anywhere close to reaching expectations.
They thought they were getting one of the best centers in the world, but instead have only received a shell of the player that was dominant during his peak seasons with the Magic.
Injuries have played a role, but he often looks out of sync on the court. One possible reason for that could be his lack of touches in the Lakers offense, but he wouldn't admit that after Sunday's loss to the Miami Heat, according to Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times.
Reporter: "Are you getting as many shots as you would like right now?"
Howard: "I don't want to talk about that."
Reporter: "Are you happy with your place in the offense?"
Howard: "I don't want to talk about it."
Howard could have provided a generic statement about trying to find chemistry or just doing whatever is asked of him, but his decision to go the route of no comment speaks volumes.
He's averaging three shots per game less than he did with the Magic over the past two seasons. Would giving him those extra looks every game make him happy, increase his effort level and get the Lakers back on track? Probably not.
But one thing is for sure: The difference between unstoppable Howard and the Howard that has played for the Lakers this season is effort level. When he's not giving 100 percent, whether it's due to injury or general disinterest, he's not the dominant player the Lakers need him to be.
It is also why he probably hasn't been able to get on the same page with Bryant. The longtime Lakers superstar is the ultimate competitor. He wants everybody else to fall in the same category when it comes to playing through the pain and grinding out wins.
After the loss to the Heat, the focus was once again on Howard's injury situation. Eric Adelson of Yahoo! Sports passed along comments from the ever-spotlighted big man, who said the Heat targeted his bad arm.
"They got me early," he told Yahoo! Sports in the quiet of the Lakers locker room after Sunday's 107-97 loss. "They would yank it back."
Howard said the Bobcats did the same thing in Charlotte Friday night – even worse, in fact.
"It's like a jolt," he said. "Then it hurts the rest of the night."
He also talked about trying to balance playing with the lingering pain.
Howard says he's trying to do everything he can on the court, but also adds: "I'm trying not to make [the injury] even worse." When asked how long doctors say it might be before the pain goes away, Howard sighed.
"No timetable," he replied.
Nobody other than Howard knows how he truly feels every time he runs up and down the court. But for a fanbase that has witnessed Bryant fight his way through a lot of injury issues, especially in recent seasons, it's a stark contrast.
The fact Howard is more willing to talk about his injury status than his role in the offense isn't ideal. It's also the latest distraction in a growing list of them since he joined the Lakers.
Now the front office must decide if he's the type of player to build a franchise around. He's a free agent after the season, and if the Lakers open the checkbook to bring him back they need him to become the unstoppable post presence he once was, not a supporting cast member.
And, if he isn't going to produce at an elite level, is he worth all the headaches? The Lakers have a couple months the decide before they have to make the call on a long-term commitment.
It's impossible to deny his talent. But it's everything other than that which the Lakers have to worry about after watching their championship plans come crashing down over the past 52 games.
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