Through the first 54 games of the season and heading into the All-Star break, the Lakers found themselves four games under .500 and out of the playoff picture. Howard was having a campaign to regret; one that might ultimately drive him to spurn Los Angeles in free agency.
At that time, plagued by back and shoulder issues, Howard was averaging 16.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.3 blocks per game. Respectable numbers, yes, but he was attempting just 10.2 shots per night, and the Lakers were losing. A lot.
Still selected as an All-Star starter, so many were disappointed with Howard's performance. Tired of excuses and his ambiguous answers to questions of his future, the going in Los Angeles—the stands, the locker room, etc.—got tense.
Even at their worst, the Lakers and their fans weren't accustomed to losing, nor were they used to seeing a steep investment go up in proverbial flames.
Not to say that Howard was playing terribly, because he wasn't. But just as the Lakers were expecting a team of superstars to win in excess, they were expecting more from Howard.
It was no coincidence that Los Angeles' struggles coincided with Howard's internal and external fits of inconsistency either.
The Lakers went into the break ranked 23rd in total points allowed and 17th in opponents' field-goal percentage (45.2). There was even a point where Los Angeles was allowing fewer points per 100 possessions without Howard on the floor.
To answer any and all questions, yes, it was shaping up to be that kind of season. The kind where the Lakers miss the playoffs for just the third time in the last two decades; the kind that fueled Howard's inevitable departure.
Fast forward past the All-Star game (which, let's be honest, Dwight shouldn't have been a part of) and everything has changed. Howard, the Lakers–everything.
In his 14 games since the break, Howard is averaging 16.9 points, 14.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. His field-goal percentage has dipped a bit during that time (54.7), but he is receiving more than an additional shot attempt per game.
Los Angeles' defense is also allowing 6.5 points per 100 possessions less when he's on the floor and per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he now ranks eighth in the league with just 0.68 points allowed per defensive possession.
In short, Howard has been the difference.
The Lakers still rank in the bottom half of defensive efficiency (19th) and they're still in the bottom 10 of points allowed (25th), but Howard's performance has paved the way for their resurgence.
Some would have you believe it's luck, that the numbers show Los Angeles is putting forth a near-identical performance to the one prior to the break, that there has been nothing different.
And to that, we must look away. No one should expect Howard to win Defensive Player of the Year or the Lakers to be crowned NBA champions right this minute, but their 11-3 record since the break isn't luck. Something has changed. Dwight Howard has changed.
Those first 54 games (48 for Howard) saw him come close to his recent level of performance only a handful of times.
Leading into the break, Howard posted at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 13 of his first 48 games, or in 27 percent of his appearances. He's since eclipsed that same collective plateau in seven of his first 14 contests out of the break, or 50 percent.
But he could always tally such gaudy numbers, right? This is his normal? His back (and shoulders) are healing, so we expect this, correct?
Just because Howard could do what he's doing now doesn't make his recent play any less of a transformation. His mobility and explosiveness have returned, so his instincts have been allowed to take over and the results have been tremendous.
Not only has Howard helped the Lakers to an 11-3 record post All-Star break, but he essentially has them 2-0 since Bryant went down, one such victory coming on the road against a stingy defensive and contention-worthy team in the Indiana Pacers.
For a Lakers team that is 3-16 on the road against teams above .500, 13-21 away from home overall and down their best player (my apologies disciples of Howard) in Kobe, that's change.
The Lakers have made adjustments, some that the numbers can't even explain. They're carrying themselves better, acclimating themselves to one another and fighting together. That's change.
At the forefront of this renaissance is Howard.
He's (broken-record style) changed. He's had to.
Because the Lakers couldn't have done this, any of this, without him.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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