Kobe Bryant is out indefinitely with what's been deemed a severely sprained left ankle. Pau Gasol is still working his way back from a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, though he could be back in action within a week or so. Steve Nash has been slow to recover from a freak injury to his left leg from the second game of the 2012-13 NBA season, and at 39, it's clear that he's lost a step or two anyway.
Furthermore, with Jordan Hill ruled out for the year after hip surgery, the Lakers remain perilously thin up front.
All of this essentially leaves Howard in a situation for which he'd seemingly been yearning: in a major market, on a marquee team to call his own.
No need to butt heads with Kobe. No need to complain about touches, or a lack thereof. No worrying about sharing a spotlight with another "alpha dog."
It's all Dwight's now. So is the responsibility for his own performance, as well as that of the team around him. So long as Kobe's out, Howard figures to be LA's go-to guy on the offensive end.
For all the flak that Howard takes for his supposed (and at times, apparent) lack of touch and grace in the low post, the fact is, the guy's a productive player in the paint. According to NBA.com, Howard's 7.2 shots per game in the restricted area are the third-most of anyone in the league, and his 67.5 percent success rate is easily the best among the top three.
As ugly and unnatural as some of those bricked hooks and stumbling scoop shots may seem, there's no denying just how quick Howard is on his feet. Nor can one easily ignore the grace with which he's able to spin through traffic or the incredible balance that allows him to get up shots after said pirouettes. He's still not quite as quick or explosive off the floor as he was prior to his back surgery, though he's certainly come a long way since the start of the season.
He jumped three or four times after one ball. His conditioning didn't allow him to do that [before].
I think he was harshly judged because he wasn't 100 percent. There's all kind of little factors, but the further away he gets away from the [back] operation, the better he will be.
The numbers can corroborate this notion—to some extent, anyway. Here's what Dwight's stats looked like before and after the All-Star break:
|Pre-All-Star (48 Games)||16.3||11.8||1.5||1.1||2.3||3.0||3.6||.578||9.0||.495|
|Post-All-Star (12 Games)||17.0||15.0||0.8||1.4||2.5||2.3||4.3||.552||10.2||.459|
The good news: Dwight's scoring more, rebounding more, making more plays on the defensive end, getting to the free-throw line more frequently and turning the ball over less frequently.
The bad news: He's fouling more and not shooting quite as well, be it from the floor or the free-throw line.
To be sure, some of the "after" numbers (particularly the free-throw attempts) were skewed by Howard's parade to the stripe against the Orlando Magic.
On the whole, though, the Lakers are clearly much better off with post-All-Star Howard than they were with pre-All-Star Howard. As NBA.com's Brian Martin pointed out on March 11, the Lakers were only 1.9 points per 100 possessions better than the opposition with Dwight on the floor prior to the mid-February break, as opposed to 0.5 points per 100 possessions better without him.
Since then, Howard's positive impact has expanded considerably. Per NBA.com, the Lakers own a net rating of plus-14.6—including a defensive rating of 97.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. That would rank second behind only the Indiana Pacers over the course of the season when Howard plays, as opposed to a staggeringly bad minus-25.3 when he sits.
Even Kobe can't claim to have made nearly as drastic a difference as Dwight over that span. According to NBA.com, the Lakers are plus-7.9 with Kobe and minus-5.1 without him.
Granted, these figures are all derived from a relatively small sample and are only further tilted in Dwight's favor by the absences of Gasol and Hill.
Still, if the Lakers are bound to be Mamba-less for any length of time, it's clear that Dwight will have to be the one to carry them. Without Bryant around to handle the ball—and jack up more than the occasional head-scratcher—the task will fall to Steve Nash and Steve Blake to run Mike D'Antoni's offense more consistently.
In all likelihood, that'll mean plenty of pick-and-rolls, with Howard as the obvious choice to serve as the screener and finisher more often than not. He was arguably (and statistically) the best pick-and-roll big in the NBA before his back gave out. His size, agility, leaping ability and sheer strength made him an ideal candidate to set picks, cut to the basket and finish through contact, if need be.
As such, pairing Howard with Nash, perhaps the best pick-and-roll operator the league has ever seen, was supposed to lead to some sort of basketball nirvana. Of course, these things don't yield perfection overnight, not with the sort of timing and synergy required to pull off even the most routine of NBA staple plays.
And the games lost by each player to injury this season, which disrupted the growth of said timing and synergy.
Luckily for the Lakers, Dwight and Nash have been able to develop a steadier rapport of late, and it's shown:
Kobe's respite may well make it more difficult for Howard and Nash to operate with quite as much freedom as before. After all, opposing defenses won't have to account for one of the game's greatest scorers, which, in turn, means they can devote more of their energy and attention to LA's budding big-little duo.
On the other hand, as Grantland's Zach Lowe highlighted on March 14, the Lakers asked Kobe, not Steve, to run most of the high pick-and-rolls with Dwight up until Bryant's latest injury. Perhaps, then, with the cloud of Kobe's bum ankle will come a silver lining in the form of an expanded opportunity for Howard and Nash to strengthen their on-court chemistry via the pick-and-roll.
At the very least, Howard should be up for it. He's recommitted himself to the game ever since contemplating his role in the Lakers' universe during All-Star weekend (via Shelburne):
I'm a big thinker. So I just stayed in the hotel and thought about the first half of the season and how I could do better for our team.
And I just told myself, "I'm going to commit myself to being better for the second half of the season."
Per Shelburne, that included adapting to a stricter diet and accepting Kobe's criticism, however harsh it may seem. He also realized that he's better off just being himself rather than trying to conform to anyone else's idea of who or what he should be:
When I first [came to L.A.], I wanted to come here and not talk to anybody and act completely different. But that's not who I am. I've never been that way. I shouldn't ever shut myself off to the world. I don't think that's good for the team or for me and what I want to accomplish in life.
I thought about it and said, "No, I can't change. I've got to mature in certain areas," and I think I have. But I can't change who I am.
With Kobe in street clothes, he won't have to. He can play his game, his way, without having to walk on egg shells in fear of clashing with a legend. He can get back to the business of dominating on the court rather than trying to fit in.
He's the center of attention again, like he was during his days in Orlando, and which he'd hardly been since arriving in LA.
And if Dwight thrives and the Lakers win games sans Mamba, there will be no question as to whether or not the the team should further extend itself financially to retain Howard's services this summer.
Not that there necessarily was to begin with, but if nothing else, a late run from the Dwight-led Lakers would only confirm that he is indeed worthy of the post-Kobe, purple-and-gold mantle headed his way if he stays.