There are several reasons the Los Angeles Lakers are 11-4 since the NBA All-Star break and streaking toward a playoff berth that seemed unimaginable a month ago, and the rebirth of Dwight Howard during that period may be the most critical.
When seeking a catalyst for the Lakers' revival, some fans will point to Kobe Bryant's apparent journey back to his mid-2000s form or Steve Nash's embrace of his new role as a long-range assassin. But Howard's impact on both ends of the court, especially defense, may have saved the Lakers from becoming a postseason afterthought.
Howard previously admitted that he used the time off during the All-Star break to improve his health and accept the cold wisdom that Bryant has been dispensing since Howard arrived in Los Angeles.
And it certainly seems to be working.
A glance at Howard's statistics this season would appear to prove my theory false because his numbers are lower in almost every measurable category when compared to his historical body of work.
Howard's averages of 16.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 56 percent shooting from the field are decent enough, but what really makes Howard special is that he belongs to a small fraternity of players who possess the ability to decide the course of a game without scoring a point.
For all of the grief I have given Howard in the past over his lack of a low-post, back-to-the-basket game, I have never denied his tendency to dominate contests with sheer brute strength and unnatural athleticism.
Just the threat of Howard waiting in the lane was sometimes enough to deter an opponent from wandering into the paint, but Lakers fans have rarely seen that version of D12 this season.
There have been moments where Howard has put up glowing numbers, such as his 31-point, 16-rebound performance in a January win over the Milwaukee Bucks or his 26-rebound game against the Denver Nuggets in a losing effort the same month.
Even though Howard was statistically dominant in each of those examples, he didn't seem to strike much fear into the players who constantly challenged and beat the Lakers at the rim.
To be fair, some of Howard's issues were due to ongoing shoulder and back injuries, but the inconsistency in his performances led some to question Howard's attitude and approach to the game.
Well, Howard is healthier now, his timing is almost back, and his energy level has increased. More importantly, Howard is beginning to look like one of the NBA's top defensive players again.
Howard is averaging 15.2 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game in the month of March—easily his best monthly stats thus far. That includes a span where he recorded 22 rejections in five of 10 games played.
The blocks are a good indicator that Howard's timing has indeed improved, but the real evidence of his return to defensive prominence is in the L.A.'s opponents' reluctance to challenge him at the rim. He is not going to block every shot, but he can alter tons of them, affecting the way you have to play the Lakers.
This is plenty evident at a few points in the above video: At 1:20, Sebastian Telfair comes face to face with Howard, hesitates more than once and then turns the ball over; at 2:35, Alan Anderson, despite being guarded by Jodie Meeks (a poor defender), double-clutches with D12 in the area, leading to a blocked shot.
It's no coincidence that the Lakers' return to the postseason conversation has coincided with Howard's acceptance of his role on this roster. His act of submission has transformed L.A.'s season.
No one is laughing at the Lakers anymore, and instead of going down in infamy as one of the biggest busts in the history of sports, they are quickly becoming the team to avoid in the playoffs.
Lakers great Jerry West recently said he thinks the Lakers have a chance against anyone they might face in the postseason, but for that opinion to be proved true, Howard must continue to improve.
The Lakers don't have the youth of the Oklahoma City Thunder nor the depth of the San Antonio Spurs, but neither one of those teams has a player with the defensive potential of a motivated Howard, either.
Howard didn't win the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award three times in a row for nothing, and the Lakers will need that version of Howard in order to make a complete transformation from also-rans to possible title contenders.