When Dwight Howard was sent
from Disney World to Disney Land to the Los Angeles Lakers by the Orlando Magic it was a moment to behold for fans of the purple and gold. A glorious turning of the page. Andrew Bynum had done his part, helped the Lakers pick up two more stars for their new half-court logo, but was never the leviathan that was needed to lurk in the moat and protect the castle.
Things haven't exactly gone to plan, to say the least.
Still, since All-Star break, Howard has look rejuvenated. Is it his diet, which he stated he adjusted to remove excess sugar out of? Is it as simple as his back surgery being such a hamstring that he, at times, looked like a cybernetic Kwame Brown at best as he turned the ball over and couldn't defend the pick and roll? Is watching Kobe Bryant put on absolutely insane performances to pull the team out of the clutches of defeat inspiring the big man?
Whatever combination of factors it is, it's working. Howard has recorded at least 12 rebounds each game since the Lakers began making ground on their playoff hopes in the final stretch of the season. Most recently, he grabbed 21 boards against the Chicago Bulls while doing a phenomenal job defensively to protect the rim.
Truth be told, we'll never know what's going on in his head. As far as the injury goes, his physical conditioning has looked closer to being Howard-esque than Bynum-esque (though Bynum-esque this season is the equivalent to a professional Guitar Hero bass player). Howard is blowing up pick and rolls defensively, recovering from his initial jump for the secondary bounce, and has taken to setting screens that mean a damn as opposed to arbitrarily running to the perimeter then jogging back towards the key.
His attitude has gone nearly every direction this season. Most recently, though, he sung a siren song that had many fans nodding their heads vigorously. There's no quicker way to the majority of Lakers fans' hearts than falling in line with Agent 24 aside from flat-out winning. Howard's statement that watching and learning from Kobe could "make [him] a better man and a better player" hit all the right notes, sure, but the discord of a season in which the Lakers will be lucky to make the playoffs drowns out the smooth talk.
Tuesday night in Orlando Dwight Howard will play his first game in a Lakers uniform in the city he spent the first eight years of his career representing. A franchise he led to the finals along with the hot-shooting from Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. There's already unbelievable hype surrounding the game as the media seeks out any and every angle when the big man returns. Howard said it would be a "very emotional" return, which Kobe responded by saying he would "have a talk with him".
That's the cold, calculated, frighteningly focused superstar that we have come to love as fans of the Lakers.
This is basketball, though. A game of wins, losses, and advanced statistics that map out just about any and every stat that matters on the hardwood. This game is huge, not because Jameer Nelson will have a crack at revenge against his old teammate after being left in the dust (and with a hefty contract he picked up in the off-season regardless), but because the Lakers playoff chase is still far from over. It's a fragile situation, as the Lakers are once again out of the playoffs after the Jazz picked up a win Monday night.
With two more road games following the Lakers' trip to Orlando, one against the Atlanta Hawks and the other against the Indiana Pacers, this is another one of those "must-win" games. Perspective is important to maintain through narrative games, such as the one Dwight Howard and the Lakers are about to take part in.
It's put up or shut up, and it's taken months for Howard to put up undeniable effort. The blame game doesn't matter when the reality is the Lakers are going to be fighting till the very last game of the season to seal their playoff fate.
The signs were all there, though. Howard was entering the season fresh off of a back surgery which he said was so debilitating he couldn't even do a calf raise. Steve Nash is one of the greats, but he's 39 years old and in his 17th season. Both Pau Gasol and Kobe are over thirty with minutes piled on top of minutes between deep playoff runs and international play. There's a catch in all of this though, and it's that there's also that giant clock looming over it all, counting away the precious seconds remaining in Bryant's career.
In a few months Howard will make his intentions known in full if he is going to give his best shot at becoming a Lakers great. Right now he is far from being "that" guy. The guy that gets his number hung up in El Segundo as Mitch Kupchak has said on loop in a Time Warner SportsNet ad about a billion times thus far this season. The guy that adds more stars to that center court for the Lakers. Before the season began Kobe made his plan clear: he wanted to mold Howard; to bring a competitive monster to the forefront, leaving the goofy center as an undertone once the game began. The court jester to become protector of the keep, patrolling the surrounding waters. The king inside, hoping once he leaves the kingdom it will remain protected by the choices and legacy he has left behind.
Kobe has worked feverishly to move that clock backwards, and if there's anybody in the NBA who can achieve such a feat with his will alone, it's him. No matter the injuries, no matter the roster turnover, no matter the coach juggling, time is limited with Kobe, making time the Lakers greatest rival. Howard's tentative back is public enemy number one in the present, but the most precious treasure to salvage for the future. A war between the past, present, and future is in full-swing for Los Angeles. For the Lakers, and Dwight Howard, it's better late than never.
For the Magic, it became never with Dwight.
- Follow this author on Twitter @DrewGarrisonSBN