Kobe Bryant's Injury Means Lakers Are Dwight Howard's Team for Better or Worse

Jonathan WassermanNBA Lead WriterApril 13, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 28:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to his foul during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center on February 28, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

I wonder what Dwight Howard was thinking after learning the severity of Kobe Bryant's injury.

You think he's looking forward to being the man, or is he dreading it?

Either way, Howard has been given the keys whether he likes it or not. This is his show now—his team and his city, as long as Kobe is stuck on the shelf.

And that's the way he has to approach it.

This upcoming stretch might be the most important year of Dwight Howard's career. It's a chance for him to prove his worth, which will end up being max dollars when it's all said and done this summer.

Being a franchise player isn't just about putting up 20 and 10. Not after already playing nine seasons in the NBA. Stats and individual production is irrelevant in Los Angeles if it's not translating to wins in April and May. 

This will be a great test of character for a guy whose character is always in question.

Imagine how quickly his "immature" label will fade if he activates beast mode, dominates the league and puts the team on his back? It shouldn't even be considered an inconceivable thought.

The guy is 6'11'', 265 with a physique like a mythological Greek warrior. And he just happens to be good at basketball.

Howard should be at full strength by next season, or as close to full strength as the man can get. And it's not like we've never seen him dominate before.

It wasn't that long ago that Howard stepped up as the go-to guy and led his team to the NBA Finals. In 2009, the Orlando Magic's supporting cast was no more threatening than the Lakers' current roster (without Kobe).

Other than Howard, the next three leading scorers were Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson. Does that sound like a core that should be representing the Eastern Conference?

Howard managed to put a team on his back and actually make those around him better. He finished that season with a whopping 25.44 PER (it's at 19.42 this year), but most importantly, he helped maximize the talent around him.

With Kobe Bryant in the lineup this year, Howard's role decreased by default. He averaged 10.6 shot attempts per game, tied for the second fewest in his career behind his rookie season with the Magic.

Now, Howard can expect more touches and ultimately more scoring opportunities. And because of the position he plays, opportunities are created for teammates when he's drawing the most attention. Having a dominant post-scorer improves the offensive spacing. Defenses are forced to double-team, resulting in four-on-threes that can be exploited with recognition.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, Steve Nash doesn't have the breakdown abilities he used to. He could probably run a marathon, but his quickness isn't what it once was. And with Kobe Bryant out, the team will be missing its best half-court scorer—the only man in the rotation capable of creating offense for himself off the dribble.

All this means is that open shots won't be created at the point or on the wing, they'll be created from the post. The offense runs through Howard now, and he needs to embrace that role both fundamentally and mentally.

He knows the ball is coming to him. Without Bryant, Howard is really the only offensive mismatch the Lakers will get on a consistent basis.

Like I said before, if Bryant is going to be forced to miss a substantial amount of time, this will be the perfect opportunity for Howard to show us what he's made of.

And it starts now, with the Lakers clinging on to the final spot in the playoffs.

Laker fans, it's time to embrace your new go-to player. Because this is happening.