As someone who's grown up watching (and rooting for) the Los Angeles Lakers his entire life, I'll freely admit that watching Dwight Howard on the court and reading/hearing about what he's saying and doing off of it this season has been a frustrating experience, to say the least.
Even so, I feel compelled to give Howard something of a pass at the moment, if only because the Dwight Lakers fans have seen so far and the Dwight they might see in 2013-14 might be vastly different.
There have been some nights this season when Howard's looked interested, engaged and, physically speaking, like something closer to what he was during the height of his dominance with the Orlando Magic. There was the 33 and 14 with five assists he tossed up against the Portland Trail Blazers on Halloween, the 28 and 20 with three blocks that he tallied opposite the Denver Nuggets at the end of November and the 31 and 16 with four blocks that he teased out of the Milwaukee Bucks in mid-January, to name a few.
But there have been many other nights during which Dwight has looked limited, disinterested and/or confused about what he should be doing on the court. Few of Howard's detractors will forget the misery in Memphis (seven points on 2-of-7 shooting, four rebounds), the flop against Philly (seven points on 1-of-7 shooting) and, most recently, the calamity in OKC (six points on 1-7 shooting, six fouls).
Howard certainly hasn't done himself any favors along the way. He's clashed with Mike D'Antoni, gone back and forth with Kobe Bryant (through the media and otherwise) and even taken thinly veiled potshots at his old teammates with the Orlando Magic.
Throw in the tiresome string of events that led up to Howard's arrival in LA (i.e. the Dwightmare), and it's easy to see why his image has taken such a hit and why some in Lakerland have been unwilling to forgive him for his perceived transgressions.
Those are all valid concerns, as is the potential for Dwight to bolt the City of Angels via free agency this summer if he so chooses.
However, there are simply too many other variables at play to dismiss Dwight based only on what we've seen from him so far. It may seem cliche already to suggest that Howard's performance has been impaired by his recovering back, but there would also appear to be plenty of truth to that notion. He underwent a major operation last April, one that removed a loose fragment from his lower back and that, under normal circumstances, would probably incapacitate the recipient of that operation to some extent for a full year.
It's entirely possible that Howard might've returned to action too soon, or, rather, that he would've been better off taking his time recovering rather than rushing back for the preseason. It seems nearly a certainty that Howard's infrequent ability to get off the floor and move with the same brisk force that he once did can be attributed to his slow recovery, and that the additional contact he's absorbed therein contributed to the labral tear in his shoulder.
None of which has been helped by the chaotic situation in which Dwight found himself on arrival in LA. There were already questions about Mike Brown's viability as the head coach over the long haul, about the brand-new staff he brought in for Year 2, about the Princeton-ish system that staff was attempting to implement and about a roster that, while long on talent, was precariously short on experience as a unit.
Not to mention the failing health of legendary owner and franchise patriarch Dr. Jerry Buss.
The intervening months have only seen more mayhem befall the Purple and Gold. The firing of Mike Brown, the subsequent hiring of Mike D'Antoni and injuries to a number of key pieces—including Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Steve Blake and, of course, Dwight—have made it that much more difficult for this squad to establish any consistency or normalcy.
And, in turn, for Howard to find a comfortable place within all that. His role has been evolving all season, along with the roles of all his teammates, while the shifting coaching staff has tinkered with the roster in search of a successful rotation.
The rotation has been tough to settle on with players still waddling into and out of the lineup with injuries, and with Dwight's own capabilities still impaired by his bothersome back and shoulder.
Truth be told, there's a part of the fan in me that wants to give up on Dwight Howard, that wanted Mitch Kupchak to send him packing at the trade deadline.
There's a part that resents Dwight's apparent lack of concern, his dearth of the requisite seriousness to be a champion, his overall deficit of "Kobe-ness."
There's a part that wonders whether Howard truly belongs in a pantheon of franchise bigs that includes the likes of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Bynum.
Does Dwight Howard deserve a "free pass" for this season?
But there's another part of the fan in me that's an eternal optimist. There's a part that not only wants the partnerships between Dwight and Kobe, Dwight and D'Antoni, Dwight and Pau Gasol, Dwight and Steve Nash and Dwight and the Lakers to work out, but knows that they need to work out, lest the franchise be doomed for a prolonged dip into its own Dark Ages once Bryant retires.
Moreover, there's a part, in connection with the optimist, that knows that Howard can and will do better next season. There's a part that understands that, in time, Howard's back will heal and he'll be able to work himself back into proper playing shape.
Which is vitally important to Dwight's play. So much of his prior dominance was predicated on superior strength, athleticism and sheer physical prowess. Major surgery is bound to sap any elite athlete of such attributes, even more so when the procedure targets a part of the body as vital to running, jumping and bumping as is the back.
As such, it's not entirely fair to judge Howard until he's had a greater opportunity to get his body back to where it once was and until everyone involved has a better idea of how much of his former self Dwight can recapture.
This isn't to suggest that anyone should weep or feel sorry for Dwight Howard's current predicament. He's a well-compensated and oft-celebrated athlete who's clearly mismanaged many aspects of his move to LA.
But I've grown up with the Lakers, I've seen what they've done over the years and I believe in their ability to not only attract talent, but to win big with that talent in tow.
Dwight Howard can be just such a talent, but only if his health and his role permit it.