When Dwight Howard was first traded to the Lakers, he was thought of as the last piece to their championship puzzle and the perfect player for them to build their future around. The thought of Howard leaving the Lakers after the season seemed foolish to even think of. After all, why would he leave a team that had three, arguably four future hall of famers. With the acquisition of Howard, the Lakers had seemingly solidified themselves as one of the biggest threats to dethroning the Miami Heat as NBA champions.
On the first night of the NBA regular season, the Lakers were pitted against one of their toughest opponents in recent years, the Dallas Mavericks. As a team, the Lakers were eager to prove that their 0-8 pre-season record was nothing more than a fluke stemming from a lack of focus and determination. Individually, Dwight Howard was ready to prove that he truly was Superman. After undergoing back surgery in April, Dwight Howard was back on the court participating fully with no limitations a mere six months later; three months earlier than most had anticipated.
It was evident from the opening tip that Dwight Howard still wasn’t his former self. He still possessed an envious amount of athleticism, but compared to how he played before the back surgery, he seemed to have lost a step as well as his explosive leaping ability and forceful nature around the rim. However, there was one thing that had not changed; his poor free-throw shooting. Dallas exposed his kryptonite early and often, sending him to the line with regularity.
In his rookie year, Dwight Howard shot free-throws at a somewhat respectable 67.1%, compared to his next six years when he hovered slightly below 60%. Dwight continued his trend of diminishing returns from the free-throw line in year eight by managing to shoot just 49.1%. While Dwight did shoot an impressive 8-12 from the field in his first meaningful game back, he shot an abysmal 3-14 from the foul line, including some misses in the clutch which helped seal the Lakers’ fate in a 99-91 loss. In the loss, two concerns about Dwight were brought to light: nobody knew how long it would take him to fully recover from his surgery, and how could the Lakers play him in crunch time when he couldn’t make his free-throws?
Howard did have a bounce back game the next night in Portland against the Trail Blazers. He finished the game with thirty-three points and fourteen rebounds to go along with his most encouraging stat of the night, 15-19 from the free-throw line. His shooting from the line gave all Laker fans a false sense of hope that he could make his free-throws when he really concentrated. Little did anybody know the roller coaster Dwight had taken us on from the free-throw line the first two games was just a precursor to what would be a season full of misfortune and disappointment for both Dwight Howard and the Lakers in general.
Just like seemingly all of his Laker teammates, Dwight Howard has been derailed with injuries. Fortunately Dwight has had no set-backs from his surgery and has been able to stay on-track with his recovery process while his back has remained relatively pain free. Unfortunately, Dwight has still been forced to miss a handful of games so far due to a new injury.
On January 4th, during a game against the Clippers, Dwight Howard injured his shoulder while attempting a dunk. Two days later in a game against the Denver Nuggets, he aggravated his shoulder injury further and was urged by team doctors to get an MRI. He elected to have the MRI and when the results came back, they showed he had torn his labrum. Dwight had two options. He could either have surgery on his shoulder or try to play through the pain. If he chose to have surgery, it would have kept him out for six months and effectively ended his season. Howard had just come off of season-ending back surgery that kept him out of action for over half a year. He surely didn’t want to go through another season-ending surgery that would keep him on the shelf for another extended period of time, so he decided to play through it after taking a week off for his shoulder to recuperate. Recently, Dwight re-aggravated it yet again when a member of the Phoenix Suns raked down on his arm as he was attempting to jump. This latest assault on his shoulder caused him to miss another week’s worth of games and brought his games missed total up to six.
Dwight’s torn labrum cannot fully heal on it’s own. At some point he will need to get surgery if he ever wants a fully healthy shoulder again. Luckily, as long as he can handle the pain, he can play with the torn labrum. Still, it is very concerning for the Lakers to have their franchise player for the future start to have an injury history of some-sort in recent years and be hampered by another major injury. In Dwight Howard’s first six seasons, he was the poster boy for the league’s “ironman”, having only missed three games total. However, in his last two and a half seasons, including last year’s lockout shortened season, he has missed twenty-two games and counting.
Aside from the injuries that Dwight Howard has attained, another reason why the main question in Los Angeles is starting to become, “is Dwight worth all of the extra baggage” is because of his on-court production, or lack-thereof. Dwight Howard didn’t exactly start the season off on a high note in a loss against the Mavericks. But, his next game was one of his best games as a member of the Lakers. He showed us everything he is capable of doing on both sides of the ball. He scored at an effective rate, was a monster on the boards, and showed a glimpse of his defensive prowess. Just a few weeks later, Howard delivered another spectacular performance. He scored twenty-eight points and grabbed twenty rebounds to go along with three blocks and a three-pointer to cap off the Lakers 122-103 route of the Denver Nuggets.
Unfortunately, Dwight hasn’t been able to come close to replicating that type of game since. In fact, Dwight’s production has gradually diminished as the season has progressed. His game has fallen off even more in the last month due in large part to his torn labrum. Some might argue that a large part of his decrease in efficiency is due to the fast-break, pick-and-roll style offense that newly hired head coach Mike D’Antoni installed, limiting Dwight’s post-up opportunities. While his post-up opportunities have been almost non-existent, so has his production in the post. Dwight never had a great post-up game, not even before his back injury. But, it was at least respectable. Now opponents will gladly try their luck defending Dwight in the post. The reason for the substantial drop-off in his post game can all be attributed to his loss of athleticism. Dwight’s never had a good hook-shot, but before he injured his back, he had so much athleticism and strength it was almost unfair. He just needed to get within a few feet of the basket before being able to overpower or rise above his defender for a thunderous dunk. He doesn’t have that luxury anymore. Now he must rely solely on his soft, feathery touch around the basket; something he has never had, and probably never will have.
One more huge concern which is growing bigger by each passing day is Dwight Howard’s lack of consistency. Seemingly ever since the new year began, predicting how Dwight will play is about as easy as taking a calculus test with no calculator. Some games he’ll come out with an enormous amount of energy, and other games you won’t even notice he is on the court. Even in games when he does come out with energy, he slowly fades away as the game wears on. However, recently he has been consistent, but not in a good way. In six of his last nine games, he has failed to reach double digits in scoring. Furthermore, in yesterday’s game against the Charlotte Bobcats, Howard started the game in tremendous fashion by getting involved early and thus, finished the first half with twelve points and eight rebounds. Yet, when the second half started, he did his best Houdini impression of a disappearing act by scoring zero points and grabbing a total of three rebounds the entire second half. Luckily Kobe chipped in with twenty points in the second half or else this would have been another loss rightfully blamed on Howard.
It’s always hard to deem whether or not a star encumbered with injuries will ever return to his former self. Dwight Howard had many strong advocates when he first got to Los Angeles, including myself, but it’s time to realize that Dwight Howard isn’t close to carrying a team to a championship. While he could possibly get back to his former self, realistically he probably will never be the same player he once was. With his string of bad games and his designated pattern of hiding in the fourth quarter as of late, it’s time for the Lakers to start thinking of what they could possibly get for him on the trade market. Whether it’s before the February twenty-first trading deadline, or in the off-season if he re-signs and becomes eligible to trade, the Lakers would be wise to at least listen to offers for Dwight. If they don’t trade him before the trade deadline, they need to be sure he will sign in the off-season, because although he may not be worth a max-contract, other teams will think he is. Those teams would gladly give up some inexpensive, young, attractive pieces in exchange for someone who once was one of the top players in the game and has a small chance to be one again. The Lakers already have enough cap room to go after LeBron James in 2014, maybe they can trade Dwight for some talented players on rookie contracts and clear enough cap room to make a run at another superstar, Kevin Durant, in the years to follow.