Seven games. That is all that remains of what has been a tumultuous regular season for the Los Angeles Lakers. A team that many penciled into the Western Conference Finals, if not the outright NBA champions, clings to a mere half-game lead over the Utah Jazz in the hopes of just making it into the post-season. This is the time when sports writers and bloggers reach into the proverbial bag of clichés and pull out the all-too-familiar words: "it’s a must-win game", "it’s win or go home", "backs against the wall", "do or die moment", etc… Those well-worn phrases are appropriate for what the Lakers face. It is likely that a single game will decide whether the Lakers have a chance to temporarily salvage a disappointing season or go down as one of the must under-achieving teams in history. Whether they succeed or not will fall heavily on the shoulders of the Lakers’ superstar. But for once that superstar is not Kobe Bryant. It’s Dwight Howard.
For the last decade, the Lakers' potential has been directly tied to Kobe Bryant. He was the superstar that gave them a chance against any team. If Bryant went supernova, the Lakers would be virtually unbeatable. However, if Bryant wasn’t efficient, a loss was the most probable result. He was the reason the Lakers were feared. He was the difference maker. This may be the moment that this torched gets passed. Dwight Howard now controls the destiny of the team.
This Lakers team may be known for its offensive weapons, but it is the defense that determines wins or losses. Over the last 33 games, the Lakers have gone 22-11. In those 22 wins the Lakers gave up 97 points per game. In the 11 losses they allowed a staggering 109. Of those eleven losses, only two can be attributed to the offense: an 86-92 defeat on Jan 30th and a 76-99 defeat on March 18th, both to the Phoenix Suns. Two others can’t be assigned blame to either end of the floor specifically: 92-96 loss in Atlanta and a 100-103 defeat at the hands of the Wizards. The other 7 games would make defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau want to gouge out his eyes: 107, 109, 113, 116, 119, 122, and 125. No team will win games giving up that amount of points.
By contrast, in those 22 wins, only four times did the Lakers give up more than the 102 points they have allowed on average this season. Only twice did they give up over 110 and one of the games took overtime to reach that level. They weren’t an offensive juggernaut during the stretch either. They won half of those games scoring fewer than 103 points (their season average is 102.3). The biggest factor in those wins and losses was the defense.
This is why Howard is now the difference maker. From a great piece earlier today by our highly esteemed Drew Garrison:
Since the All-Star break the Lakers give up an average of 100.4 points per 100 possessions when Howard is their anchor, but an atrocious 115.8 when he's off the court.
No other player in the entire league can impact the defensive end like Howard. A fully healthy and active Howard can erase the many flaws in his teammates' defense (or lack thereof). The Lakers possess many skilled offensive weapons, and even the role players like Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison are more known for their offense, but with the injury to Metta World Peace, the Lakers only have one very good defender.
It is asking a lot of Howard to cover up the many faults of his teammates and single-handedly carry the entire load, but such a request can be par for the course for leader of the franchise. Bryant faced seasons where he too was asked to shoulder the burden for the entire Lakers production on one end of the floor. Surrounded by players like Kwame Brown, Luke Walton, and Smush Parker, he was asked to carry the team on his back. In the 2005-06 season, Kobe had a usage rate (a measurement of possessions used) of 38.7%, a rate that still stands as the highest in league history. He played over 41 minutes per game that season (missing only two games) and increased that to 45 minutes per game in the playoffs. It was his relentless will to win every possession offensively that resulted in the team’s over-achievement. He drove that squad to a 45-win season and, despite the dearth of offensive talent, they finished with the 8th best offense in the league. Howard is now being asked to do the same on the other end of the floor.
Fair or unfair, Howard will need to play heavy minutes. Fair or unfair, Howard will be asked to destroy opposing pick-and-rolls, rotate to contest shots, and the recover for the rebound all in a span of seconds. Fair or unfair, Howard will need to keep the opposition to fewer than 100 points each game. These are the type of demands that are placed on whoever is to assume the role of franchise cornerstone.
The recent win over the Dallas Mavericks is a prime example of what the Lakers need. Lost in all the praise and adulation for Kobe Bryant’s triple-double or the return of Pau Gasol with a 14-10-6 line, was the fact that the Lakers only scored 101 points (below their season average). Offensively they weren’t great by any stretch, individual stat lines be damned, but they won by holding Dallas to only 81 points. It was Dwight Howard’s defense that led to the win far more than anything Kobe Bryant did that night and it will need to continue to be that way for these last seven games.
If Dwight is ready to take the torch, carry the burden, and lead the team on that end of the floor, the Lakers will not only make the playoffs, but they may even put a scare in the opposition when they get there. The Lakers still have the superstar who can drive the offense to victory; they just need their other superstar to do the same on the defensive end. Playoffs or no playoffs, it’s in your hands now Dwight.