Lots of things have gone wrong for the Lakers this season, but the team's overall struggle can be tied to one man, and one man only: Dwight Howard.
There are a cacophony of issues facing the Los Angeles Lakers in this young, frustrating season. Pau Gasol is (was) hurt. Steve Nash as a Laker is more of a concept than a reality. The rest of the roster is comprised of a bunch of old, slow, and wildly inconsistent parts. Nothing has gone right. Nothing has gone according to plan. This hasn't happened often for the Lakers. They are the winning-est, most successful, and yes, luckiest, franchise in the NBA's history, but this season, it seems like the basketball gods are trying to regress the franchise's luck to the mean in one short 82 game stint. The Lakers have many, many questions, some of which have no answers. But they only have one problem.
Dwight Howard is the problem. Dwight Howard is the solution.
This is not the same thing as saying the Lakers' struggles are Dwight's fault. Dwight didn't kick Nash just below the knee. Dwight didn't invent the concept of time, which is slowly destroying Pau Gasol's knees, and the athleticism of half the roster. Dwight didn't build this roster, which looks great on paper but has struggled so mightily in reality. But Dwight is the "paper" that is causing the Lakers' reality to involve so much failure.
Dwight Howard is not the only guy in purple and gold who has failed to live up to expectations. Everybody not named Kobe Bryant (and maybe MWP, Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill) has done that, or else they have exactly lived up to, but not surpassed, the extremely low expectations they came in with. Dwight Howard hasn't been the biggest flop so far. That honor lies either with Nash or Gasol, depending on whether you judge not playing due to injury more or less harshly than playing poorly due to injury (and, in fairness, let us not forget that Dwight Howard has the same "injury" card to play.) Dwight is firmly entrenched as the Lakers' second best player. His numbers, though down from previous seasons, are still quite strong. 18 points, 12 rebounds, 2.5 blocks per game ... even as Dwight has "struggled", he's still providing a level of production Andrew Bynum approached only in his final season.
Dwight Howard is in no way the Laker's biggest failure. He's just the most important.
The Lakers roster didn't become flawed overnight. Mitch Kupchak didn't add Antawn Jamison to address how poorly the back up big men defended last year. He didn't sign a point guard who could improve the team's perimeter quickness and defense. He didn't address any of the team's defensive needs. What he did do was sign a shitload of offensive talent: Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks ... these are all guys who can put the ball in the basket, and in Nash's case, make it infinitely easier for everybody else to do so as well. With the offseason moves made, the Lakers were always going to be weak defensively ... unless they also acquired a once-in-a-generation defensive talent that could make all those problems go away, a defensive anchor that could clean up the mistakes of his teammates.
The Lakers thought they had acquired just such a talent. So did we. So far, that player has failed to make an appearance. That may seem harsh on Dwight. Hell, it is harsh on Dwight. It is an impossibly high standard to set for a player. But it is a standard that Dwight has set for himself by being so dominant on the defensive end of the court for so long. And it is the standard that Dwight must live up to if the Lakers are to have any hope of sniffing a championship this season.
Is that hope dead? The answer depends on the reasons for Dwight's failure. There are two veins of possible explanation: that Dwight isn't currently as physically capable as he was before, or that Dwight is not as motivated as he was before. Keep in mind, It's not an either/or answer. It could be, and probably is, a mixture of both. But, to understand what is going on with Dwight, we need to understand in greater detail what made him so successful previously. To help me do that, I reached out to Evan Dunlap at Orlando Pinstriped Post for his thoughts on Dwight Howard, past and present.
Except in Howard's last season, Orlando never failed to have a top 5 defense despite not having the best of defensive pieces surrounding Howard (or so I've been told). Would you say that the pieces surrounding Howard were underrated, that SVG's defensive scheme was just that good, or that Howard really did take a team of below average parts and turn them into a dominant defensive team single handed?
Dwight didn't do it all himself: Stan's schemes played a big role in keeping Orlando elite at the defensive end. Having said that, Stan built those schemes around Howard. The idea is to stay with the man you're guarding--don't play the passing lanes and risk getting burnt--and then, if you're getting beaten off the dribble, funnel him to Dwight. He'll take care of it. And, for the most part, he did.
Was Howard's defensive effort ever inconsistent? If so, did that inconsistency seem tied to what his teammates were doing, or was it just run of the mill "I don't want to work hard right now" variety? (I'm guessing this did happen in his last season, but what about before that?)
Dwight's effort on both ends of the floor was usually pretty strong on a consistent basis. One thing I will say is that he tends to start seasons off slowly. I wouldn't go so far as to say he's "phoning it in" or "going through the motions;" no, I wouldn't use such severe verbiage. But after a month or so, he'd kick his effort level up a notch, and the difference was striking. That inconsistent effort level didn't seem tied to his teammates' performance. I will say--and maybe you've noticed this too--that there are times when he'll chew out a teammate for getting a rebound that he feels should have been his. But other than that, nothing.
One of the main things I've heard about Howard is that his ability to help and recover is second to none. What did that actually mean? Was Howard helping on the PNR and then recovering to his man without the need for a defensive rotation? Was he helping as the secondary defender and then recovering if the ball was dumped to his man? All of the above? While we're on the subject, how much help did his teammates provide in terms of rotating to Dwight's man when Howard did help as the secondary defender or on the PNR?
You're right about Dwight being able to blow up pick-and-rolls. That's one of the most difficult tasks for a big man, and Dwight was the league's best at it. What makes him effective there is his discipline and control: he hardly ever over-helps. Further, his teammates rarely had to rotate over to his man.
What do you think the primary reason the Lakers have been poor defensively with Howard is: That the rest of the team is just that bad defensively, that Dwight is still recovering from his back injury, or that he just isn't playing the way that he used to?
What I've noticed with Dwight since the back injury is that he can't recover to his man quite so quickly. He's also struggled to make multiple cuts on individual pick-and-rolls. He's not as limber as he was, but I do think some of that agility will return in time. I'm tempted to say that if Dwight is struggling defensively, it has more to do with his body than with his mind. We all know Dwight's a little silly, and he's earned a reputation as a me-first sort of guy, so there might be a tendency to think he's dogging it out there. But I think that view is reductive, and misses a big part of Dwight's personality: his pride.
Another thing I'll add here: Mike D'Antoni's reputation is as a guy who doesn't give a lick about defense, and I don't think that rep is entirely fair either. But it's absolutely true that he doesn't emphasize it the way Stan did. For all the attention Stan's Magic earned for their three-point-happy offense, that team contended for championships on the strength of its defense. It's something Van Gundy taught. I don't think L.A. is getting that same sort of message right now, and the lack of focus and discipline there is showing.
So, the defensive scheme was vital, but wouldn't have been possible without Dwight at the helm, meaning Dwight Howard was, in fact, as good as advertised. He never really had any effort issues (save Evan's insight about being a slow starter) including in his final year. But, by far the most important takeaway from Evan's analysis, and the most devastating critique of Howard's time in Los Angeles is this:
Further, his teammates rarely had to rotate over to his man.
That one sentence captures the entire issue. It explains why the Lakers thought Howard could solve, or at least mitigate, a lot of the defensive problems the Lakers quite obviously have. And it also explains why they have failed so badly thus far. Because whenever Dwight has helped a teammate on defense, either in pick and roll situations or as a secondary defender, a quick bounce pass to Dwight's man has led to an easy dunk. People have been blaming the rest of the team's poor defensive rotations, but when you have Dwight Howard, you aren't supposed to have to.
Again, it is an impossible standard to live up to, one that seems fundamentally flawed when excusing the rest of the team's porous defense with "Yeah, but we knew they would be bad defenders." But this is Dwight's purpose. This is what he was brought here to do. It is also the most important purpose anybody on the team has. Dwight being
good spectacular defensively is the single, most important factor in anything the Lakers will accomplish this season, and so far, he hasn't been. He's been good. He's gotten a few blocks, and at times he has certainly made a defensive impact; a quarter here, a six minute stretch there, where the Lakers look like a competent defensive team. But it needs to be there all the time for the Lakers to let all that offensive fire power carry the team to victory.
Why hasn't it been? Evan postulated that whatever is wrong with Dwight is more of the body than of the mind. I'm not so sure. I have seen far too many defensive possessions in which Dwight Howard has behaved in an un-Howard like manner. Possessions where he's in good position, but goes for the strip instead of the block. Possessions where he doesn't jump for rebounds. And, of course, the mounds and mounds of possessions in which Dwight has raised his hands in frustration when his teammates fail to rotate to his man. Think about that action in the context that Evan has provided: Dwight Howard is frustrated with his teammates for failing to do something that he previously didn't expect. For these reasons, I have been a harsh critic of Howard, and will continue to be if the behavior that troubles me continues.
But no matter the cause, there is still reason to hope. If Dwight Howard is struggling defensively because he's not physically himself yet, there's still time for him to recover. If he's struggling because his mind is elsewhere, well, his mind has been proven to be somewhat fickle, and that can mean a reversal of bad attitudes as well as good ones. It is this reason, more than any kind of offensive synergy, that I believe the return of Steve Nash can save the Lakers. There's nobody in the league better at making his teammates play with joy on the court, and a heavy dose of joy could be just what Dwight Howard needs to re-capture his love of and pride in being the best defensive player the NBA has seen in 20 years.
If he can do it, the Lakers can not be counted out, no matter their record. If he can't, the Lakers never had a chance.