Fitter Dwight Howard Will Make LA Lakers Title Contenders in Time for Playoffs

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Fitter Dwight Howard Will Make LA Lakers Title Contenders in Time for Playoffs
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Dwight Howard told the media on Saturday afternoon that he's not only ready to shoulder a lot of the blame for the Los Angeles Lakers' struggles so far this season, but that he's not in the shape he's used to being in at this point in the season (per Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLA.com):

Howard, of course, had surgery to repair a herniated disc last spring, so a lot of what he was able to do over the summer in terms of conditioning had to be limited to what his back would allow him to accomplish.

One of the most jarring discoveries coming into the season had to be Howard's admission that he's experienced leg numbness when he sits down, which effected him to the point that he couldn't even do a calf raise.

Going from being the constantly active, incredible physical specimen that he was to a sometimes immobile player is going to have an impact, and we're seeing just what that impact is with his struggles this season.

Saturday, Howard expanded on just how hard he was hit physically, giving us all the rundown on how much he's been limited this season (per Ramona Shelburne):

I knew that would be a process. The better shape I'm in, the more active I can be and the more I'm able to do on the floor. But it was a struggle at first because I just didn't have it in the tank, especially on defense.

I didn't have a chance to really get in good shape. And then it's hard trying to get in shape during the season, playing a lot of minutes and traveling. It's very tough. But I'm trying to do the best I can with what I have and work on my conditioning every day.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It's an interesting comparison even at this point to compare Howard to Shaquille O'Neal. While Howard operates best in peak physical condition, and anything below it is considered a disappointment, Shaq always seemed to work his way into shape during the season, yet few people complained while the Lakers were winning.

Even with a portion of his strength still missing, Howard has steadily looked better over the past few weeks.

While his numbers haven't fluctuated terribly, he's starting to become more consistent, rather than having a great game followed by a lousy one, and his presence as a defender is looming more and more fiercely. 

We're all still waiting to see the Howard that we were used to in the past few seasons, but there's still a bit of room to grow (per Ramona Shelburne):

I usually can play 45-48 minutes without getting tired. Now after five possessions I'm winded. But all that stuff will come. Hopefully, if we continue to do what we've been doing, by the time we get to the playoffs, I'll be in pretty good shape.

He's working on the Shaq training program this year, whether he originally wanted to or not. We all know what happened once Shaq was in shape; the Lakers won championships.

So, is that still an option for this 27-29 Lakers team that remains three-and-a-half games out of eighth place in the Western Conference?

Surprisingly enough, it's not out of the question.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Consider what the Lakers would be if they do end up making the playoffs. A huge late-season run with a suddenly fitter Dwight Howard and even Pau Gasol now coming off the bench would make them the most fearsome lower-seeded team in years.

They wouldn't be a matchup problem like the 2011 Memphis Grizzlies were for the San Antonio Spurs. Nor would they be a team that could get hot and run their opponents like the 2007 Golden State Warriors.

Instead, they would be a good basketball team that just took some time to figure out who they were.

Not only that, they would have a team with a ton of playoff experience, the best center in the league and a coach ready to get the playoff monkey off his back.

While they've got work to do to get into the playoffs yet, there's no doubt that a low-seeded Lakers team presents the most frightening seventh or eighth seed possible for the best teams in the West.

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