Lakers News: Dwight Howard's Conditioning Comments Are Step in Right Direction

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after being called for a travel against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center on February 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  The Lakers won 113-99. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2013

Dwight Howard has helped dig the Los Angeles Lakers into a massive hole. Now, he's doing his part to work them out of it.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com reported that Howard has owned up to his poor play on the court. Per Shelburne:

"You've got to have energy and I want to bring that energy every night," Howard said in a revealing interview Saturday afternoon. "That's my job. They count on me to be that guy. I just know how much more effective I will be when I'm in better shape. And, unfortunately, it's cost us a lot of games."

Howard said his conditioning has improved throughout the season, but he's still "not even close" to where he wants to be, and where he once was before undergoing back surgery in the offseason.

"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," he said. "But it was a struggle at first because I just didn't have it in the tank, especially on defense."

It was a rare show of maturity from one of the most immature players in the league. Lest we forget the surreal press conference he gave in Orlando about loyalty and telling reporters he wasn't trying to get Stan Van Gundy fired.

Howard could have very easily blamed those around him or some variable beyond anybody's control. Instead, he owned up to his part in the Lakers' debacle up to this point in the season.

Some of Howard's struggles were completely out of his hands. He had back surgery in the offseason, so it's not as if he could have simply flipped a switch and made himself healthy. While he may not have helped himself at times, getting back to full strength was always going to be a process for Howard.

Then there's the shoulder injury that limited Howard's time and led to Kobe Bryant essentially calling out the big man for not playing hurt (h/t Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com).

With all of the injury problems Howard has suffered, 2012-13 has been arguably the worst season of his career. His points per game are the lowest since 2005-06, and his rebounds per game are the worst since his rookie season. In addition, Howard is only shooting 49.3 percent from the free-throw line.

You could have very easily seen Howard blaming other players around him and saying that he was playing hurt, so of course his numbers and effectiveness would be limited. Then he'd wonder publicly why Bryant had essentially demanded that he continue to play hurt.

Instead, he took the high road, and it was the perfect thing for a team that has already had enough drama to fill the Staples Center.

Every Lakers fan had been saying that, as long as the team made the playoffs, it would remain a title contender. No one would want to play a team in the postseason that had Bryant, Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. As the season dragged on, that argument has looked more and more like a joke.

Now having won 10 of their last 14 games, the Lakers find themselves only three games behind the Houston Rockets for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Howard in particular has really stepped his game up. Los Angeles' 113-99 win over the Boston Celtics on February 20 was the center's best performance of the season, as he scored 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the floor and added 12 rebounds.

Finally, the Lakers are looking like a bona fide playoff team, and Howard looks to be taking a bigger leadership role. The rest of the NBA is on notice.

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