The Los Angeles Lakers are three games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and they aren't going to climb any higher unless Dwight Howard starts making a greater and more consistently assertive effort on offense.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is averaging a respectable 16.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game this season, but has still not been his usual explosive self in head coach Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense. Rather, he has been so hot and cold to the point where it could be argued that his overall value could be lowering—not at all a good sign for his impending free agency.
Granted, Howard's low production this season is not because he is a bad player. He has been fighting a shoulder injury for the past several weeks and recently admitted that his conditioning is not where he wants it to be after undergoing back surgery almost a year ago.
While it is noble of him to be so upfront about his shortcomings, the facts are simple. The Los Angeles Lakers will not make the playoffs unless Howard can be the explosive center his teammates need him to be, regardless of how out of place he feels in D'Antoni's system.
Look at it this way: In the Lakers' win against the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 12, Howard scored 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting in 41 minutes. He demanded the ball and played a large role in his team's victory.
This could be because Howard finally has a strong supporting cast after being the sole go-to guy in Orlando for so many years, but does not take away from the fact that the Lakers need him to be more of a force—and regularly. Hot and cold offensive nights have been the story of Howard's season ever since D'Antoni took over as head coach and are a large reason that the Lakers have struggled.
Simply put, with the team three games behind the Houston Rockets for the final playoff spot in the West, Howard needs to be more of a force. This means demanding the ball more often and playing the low post in a dominant fashion, even if it goes against everything D'Antoni stands for as a coach.
It also means that Howard needs to join teammate Kobe Bryant and be more of a leader rather than just be willing to let the five-time champion man the driver's seat. Basketball is a team game, and Los Angeles is doomed unless a collaborative effort is made down the stretch.
That means that Howard must be in old form and not so willing to let the guards run the show, or else the Lakers could be doomed to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005.