Dwight Howard is not the villain he is often made out to be.
He just hasn't been Superman.
Howard has been playing with a tear in his cape since coming to Los Angeles, clearly limited following offseason back surgery. Playing through pain in his first season with the Lakers, the widespread criticism of the superstar center has been largely undeserved.
Howard hasn’t shared everything about his back injury.
“Have you seen the picture of that thing that came out of his back?” asked Metta World Peace, his Lakers’ teammate. “Have you ever seen the picture?”
World Peace's words never rang so true. The biggest character in the Lakers’ cast of personalities came to Howard’s defense in an interview before the team's most recent ache—a Monday night loss to the Golden State Warriors.
“Ask him to show you the picture,” World Peace said.
World Peace came across like a school kid who just wanted to share something gross, but he happened to stick up for a friend in doing so.
The opportunity to see the photo came following the game, as Howard stood at his locker before the horde of media collapsed beneath him with cameras.
“What picture? Oh. Yeah you can see it,” Howard said.
I asked if he could send it to me, but he declined, clearly trying to avoid adding to the media storm that has surrounded his season in L.A.
“Here, I’ll show it to you though,” he said after thumbing through some photos on his iPhone.
And there it was. Disgusting. It looked like an elongated piece of chicken fat, a yellowish-white mass, laid out next to next to a ruler measuring at approximately five-and-a-half inches.
“Yeah, that was the part on my nerve they had to pull out,” Howard said.
Howard’s teammate was right—the piece that came off the disc in his back was revolting.
“It was pretty nasty,” World Peace said. “I don’t even know how the hell he played. If he showed you the picture of that thing that came out of his back, the general public would take back all of the comments they made about him.”
Playing hurt and taking the blame
Howard has played through the pain, the losing and the criticism. His injury could have kept him out until January, yet he played the preseason.
But a busted Howard has never been enough—not for the franchise’s prince, Kobe Bryant, and not for a franchise with championship-or-bust expectations that’s been bounced in the second round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
Bryant told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan in early February that Howard is too focused on image rather than production.
Dwight worries too much about what people think. I told him, "You can't worry about that. It's holding you back." He says, "OK, OK, OK," but it's always hovering around him. He just wants people to like him. He doesn't want to let anyone down, and that gets him away from what he should be doing.
Bryant later came around to say the media manufactured the beef between him and Howard. But while words can certainly be exaggerated through the mainstream, it’s evident that the two superstars carry different ideologies.
With the Lakers’ season spiraling out of control and Bryant seemingly against him, the NBA world buzzed with headlines of Howard lacking the edge to push the Purple and Gold forward.
A change in Howard
Howard’s brilliance as a star in Orlando always had less to do with his numbers—as elite as they were for the position—and everything to do with his superstar personality.
But something in Howard has changed.
He was once jovial on the floor and in front of the cameras. After Monday’s loss, though, Howard was giving quiet, one-word answers to the Lakers’ media. He brushed off questions about minor injuries, likely laughing in his head about how the biggest back in the league is still in pain, just as it has been all season.
For the 10,000th time this season, a question was posed regarding how he was handling the backlash.
“I think a lot of people, instead of making their own opinion, go by what other people have said,” Howard said in response.
“I think for the people who know me, who have known me for years, they know what type of person I am and what I’ve been through throughout the years. I’m not going to stop being that person because of all the negativity that’s been going on throughout the year. There’s no need to.”
Howard always embraced the spotlight, but it’s never been so focused with this lens of pessimism. His poor handling of his exile from Orlando gave him a heavy dose of the negativity, but it’s never been poured on like this before.
A step in the right direction
Howard's play is beginning to near the lofty expectations set for him in Los Angeles. His evident progression has been a part of the successful Lakers' run that pushed the team into the postseason picture.
He's playing with an extra bounce in his step compared to how he started the season, laboring on both ends of the floor.
"I mean, he was not healthy," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He came back too early probably and played, and took some criticism because he wasn't vibrant. But now he's getting there and he's dominating the game."
It's easier to co-exist when the team is successful. After dropping to a season-worst eight games under .500 (17-25) on Jan. 23, the Lakers had been 11-5 since the All-Star break before Monday's loss. In that stretch, Howard has averaged 17.0 points, 14.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.
“I think he’s playing phenomenal,” Bryant said after Monday’s loss in which Howard scored 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting. “We need to figure out a way to get him some more looks down low. And I tried to step back as much as I possibly could and allow that to develop."
It’s still a mystery whether or not the Lakers can fulfill championship expectations with Howard in the middle. Ultimately, the all-league center will be judged not on his personality, but his ability to lift the Los Angeles back to the success expected of the storied franchise.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., following the Los Angeles Lakers' loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Jimmy Spencer is an NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JimmySpencerNBA.