Kobe Bryant's sprained ankle could possibly force the five-time champion to miss some games, in which case Dwight Howard will be in a prime position to silence his critics. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has visibly struggled in head coach Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense for most of the season. But he has shown improvement as of late.
Over his last five games, Howard has averaged 21.8 points, 16.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocks over his last five games, compared to 16.4 points, 12.4 boards and 2.4 blocks for the regular season. It's taken him until March, but he appears to have found the necessary balance between his usual low post game and ever-developing attack on the pick-and-roll.
Just the same, Howard has not exactly been Mr. Popular in his first season with the Lakers. He has been caught with his foot in his mouth and shown frustration with his role in the offense, and conditioning issues have certainly earned him some dirty looks in the City of Angels.
However, should Bryant's injury force him to miss games, Howard is going to be in an excellent position to make the critics forget all about their issues with him.
Look at it this way: A lot of why Howard has not been his usual explosive self this season, all injuries aside, is because he actually has a solid group of players on the hardwood with him. Instead of an aging Jason Richardson and ineffective Hedo Turkoglu, not to mention a hit-or-miss Jameer Nelson, he has the constantly-dangerous Kobe Bryant to go with a solid 7'0" center in Pau Gasol and the seemingly ageless Steve Nash.
No matter how you look at it, that's a tremendous upgrade.
Now, consider that Bryant may miss some time. In the blink of an eye, the Lakers would lose 27.5 points per game as well as a key playmaker. Someone is going to have to step up and take over on offense in his absence. But who could it be?
Gasol is definitely someone who could, but he is just about to return from a foot injury and may need a game or two to get back into the swing of things. Metta World Peace has done well in D'Antoni's system, averaging 12.7 points per game, but most of his work comes from beyond the arc. In terms of the bench guys, well, they're on the bench for a reason.
This leaves Howard as the best scoring option, with a career mark of 18.2 points per game. He would easily be the main go-to guy if Bryant missed a game and with a great point guard in Nash who can both get him the ball and help shoulder the scoring load, the possibilities would be endless.
In fact, it'd likely be reminiscent of the days when Nash was running the pick-and-roll with Amar'e Stoudemire in Phoenix, and Stoudemire averaged 23.2 points and nine rebounds per game in their six seasons together while Nash chipped in 17 points and 10.9 assists. Throw in that Howard is a better rebounder and defender than Stoudemire, and one can see just how well he can do in D'Antoni's offense should Bryant miss any games.
That said, the stage could soon be set for Howard to silence his critics by continuing his hot streak in the event that Bryant's ankle keeps him off the court. That situation would make Howard the Lakers' go-to guy, and a strong performance from him under those circumstances will make his critics take back everything they have said about him.
The man will show that he can be a leader in the face of adversity, and it's going to be hard to find anything negative to say about him in that event.