When the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Dwight Howard this summer, they presumably thought they were getting a perennial All-World talent capable of making the single biggest impact on the defensive end of any player in the contemporary NBA. The player they've gotten has performed quite a bit below those standards. While Howard's per-game averages are fine at 17.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks, he has rarely been dominant, merely looking like a very limited good player instead of one of the league's shining lights. On the list of reasons for the Lakers' disappointing 13-14 start, Howard's play is somewhere near the top.
However, it's been obvious to pretty much everyone watching Howard that he's not at his physical best. In truth, Howard is in the midst of recovering from the surgery he had to repair a herniated disc in his back last April. Howard confirmed as much in a wide-ranging interview with Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports (via SLAM):
"I'm still in that process," Howard said in an extensive interview with USA TODAY Sports at the team's practice facility. "People don't understand that. They just come out and see me make a couple dunks and blocks and say, 'Oh, he's back.' But it does take a while for all this stuff to heal. This is not something easy, so I understand that. It will come." [...]
[T]he nuances of defense can't be found in a box score. He still gets tired, which means he doesn't scramble from end to end like he used to or always finish plays. He's still learning his teammates' tendencies as defenders, still deciding when to bite his tongue about their deficiencies and — as was the case in a Dec. 5 game at New Orleans when Howard and Bryant got in a shouting match — when to speak up.
Howard has routinely cited the nerve damage that was done when he injured his back last season, when doctors told him to either have surgery right away and miss the Magic's playoff run or run the risk of never playing again. But the part that he's kept quiet is the lingering effects of the procedure.
"Tingling in my legs all the way down to my feet," Howard said as he described his current state. "There's times when sometimes I really can't even feel my feet. [The doctors] said that's going to happen. It takes at least nine months for you to get strength back in your legs and all that stuff. So I'm still in that process."
Howard's reputation has been diminished enough in the last year that it's easy to read these comments as excuses for his play. But they are also borne out as facts by the way he's playing. Howard is not reacting as quickly as we're accustomed to on defense, he's not beating defenders down the court for easy baskets like he usually does, he's not maintaining prolonged periods of dominance, etc. Unless he's been amazingly distracted by the potential of guest-starring on a new Disney Channel sitcom every day, Howard is playing worse because of his health.
The good news is that he should continue to improve — if the nine-month rehab prognosis proves accurate (and we're understanding it correctly), he'll round into shape some time near the end of January. The bad news is that, for a big man, injuries to the back, legs, and feet typically don't go away very easily. They linger, and that means the athletes have to change how they play.
Howard isn't going to be this hobbled forever, but it's worth considering that the Lakers won't ever see the once-in-a-generation dynamic center Howard was before the injury. While he'll regain some of that form, he could be quite different.
The Lakers have lots of smart people in the organization, so chances are they realize this possibility and will adjust their expectations accordingly. Yet, if this season has been largely defined by waiting for players to return to form, it may behoove everyone to think about which version of Howard will become fully healthy in the coming weeks. The guy we came to know in Orlando could never return in full force. That's not necessarily a major problem for Howard and the Lakers — it's just a reality of what happens after a significant injury.
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