EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Dwight Howard was sitting down on Friday, which is good considering the topics at hand.
His surgically-repaired back that still isn't right yet. The Lakers' defense that's in need of a heart transplant. The reputation that he's still trying to repair after the tumultuous path he took to get here.
It made all sorts of sense that Howard stayed seated for this weighty discussion.
While Steve Nash would make his return the following night, the two-time MVP point guard bringing his offensive wizardry back to the Lakers in a 118-115 overtime win at Golden State that was the fourth in a row for the 13-14 squad, Howard's focus both then and now is on the other end. This Lakers team that features a three-time Defensive Player of the Year (Howard), a nine-time all-defensive first team player (Kobe Bryant), and a fellow former Defensive Player of the Year (Metta World Peace) is ranked an inexcusable 16th in defensive rating (102.2 points allowed per 100 possessions).
Howard is well aware that the Lakers' demise comes with a ripple effect, his name as the best defender in the game dishonored a little more with every hapless defensive effort. For all the silliness that never stops with Howard, he has no shortage of pride. What he doesn't have and so badly needs, however, is the physical capability to play like the dominant force he's been for most of eight seasons.
Howard is progressing quickly these days, but he said he's still feeling the effects of the April surgery to repair a herniated disk. In other words, Dwight Howard still isn't Dwight Howard just yet.
"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."
Just not quickly enough for his or Lakers fans' liking.
While Howard's production is at a high-level (he's averaging 17.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game), the 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."
The conditioning is equally important when it comes to Howard's game, as his ability to not only outmuscle opponents but to outwork them has been his calling card until recently. The lungs, just like the legs, are slowly coming back to him.
"I'm (still) getting super tired," said Howard, who had just 11 points, six rebounds, two blocks, and one steal against the Warriors before fouling out with eight seconds left in overtime. "At the beginning of the season, I was getting tired in the first quarter, after a couple of possessions. Sometimes I'm a little winded come second half, where it takes me a little longer to get going. I understand it's a process. By the end of the year, I should be in great shape. I've never taken six months off of anything.
"The biggest thing about playing defense is that it's not just heart, but just being in shape. You've really got to be in shape to get down in a defensive stance, slide with a man, especially these guards. And then when they turn the corner, try to meet them at the rim. You have to be in great shape. And for the most part of my career, I've been in tip top shape where I could play 40 minutes nonstop without getting tired. And now I'm just not there."
Howard didn't forget the homework he assigned to the media on Thursday, when a reporter's question about defense and who was the most dominant in the NBA land inspired the Lakers center to play the part of professor and demand that some research was done.
There was, he had indicated for the second time in these last few months,a problem with this premise that New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler was the defensive catalyst that the media had made him out to be last season. This was the three-time Defensive Player of the Year discussing the rival big man who kept him from joining Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace as the only players to win a fourth, so tact would take a backseat to truth as he made his feelings known about the player who he'll see yet again on Christmas Day at the Staples Center.
When Friday rolled around, the topics had changed for everyone besides Howard. His lesson was far from done.
"Did you check the stats?" he said to this reporter on Friday.
The numbers, as he had hinted, don't lie.
Howard only missed 12 games in the lockout-shortened, 66-game season because of his injury, and his damage done defensively was impressive: 10.8 defensive rebounds per game (led the league), 2.1 blocks (third), and 1.5 steals (led all centers). Chandler, by comparison, was just seventh in defensive rebounds (6.5 per game),
11th in blocks (1.4) and sixth in steals (0.9).
Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) and Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) talk on the court against the Washington Wizards in the fourth quarter at Verizon Center.(Photo: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports)
But individual defensive legacies are most often born out of collective success, and Howard undoubtedly paid the price for the fact that the Magic fell from third in defensive rating in 2010-11 (99.1) to a mediocre 13th last season (101.7 and, ironically, tied with the Lakers). Chandler, meanwhile, received enormous credit for the defensive strides made in his first season in New York: the Knicks finished fifth in defensive rating (98.4) after they were 21st the season prior (106.9).
The equation isn't nearly as simple as Howard makes it out to be, as the reality of his situation is that he'll be held accountable for the Lakers' defensive fate just as he was with the Magic. To that end, he knows it may still take time to turn a corner with this group. It goes well beyond Howard, Bryant and World Peace, with everyone – yes, even the defensively-challenged Nash – needed to improve on that end.
"This year, (fans and media) look at our defense and basically (see that) it's terrible," Howard said. "I need to step my defense up (but) the teams I've been on, they've played great team defense. And the reason why is because we were in our spots, we talked, we communicated, we had chemistry. We didn't start off that way. Our team was just as bad when I first got to Orlando as far as defense. But the more time we spent together, the better we got. And then that's where I got better as a defensive player."
The Magic were ranked 18th in defensive rating during Howard's rookie season (2004-05), then 22nd his second season, then made serious strides from there: seventh in 2006-07, then fifth, first in the 2008-09 season when they fell to the Lakers in the Finals, first again, then third in 2010-11.
"It wasn't just me blocking shots, it was being active on pick and rolls, and knowing that I have people behind me who are going to get steals and try to play their best one on one defense and just bring their man to the paint and make them finish on me," Howard said.
But that's not happening yet with the Lakers, which has everything to do with his decision to call Bryant out for a defensive lapse in that Dec. 5 game. The moment, Howard admitted, was significant for their relationship.
"I think it is (big), but I've never been afraid to speak my mind," he said. "I'm a person that, for the most part, I keep stuff to myself. I'm not big with confrontation. But I just understand that this team has the capability of being special, to do some special things with what we have. But everybody has to buy into it, and it starts on defense. And we'll all get there, but there are just certain things that I have to see from this team and from myself."
While Bryant is the one with the storied past and present with these Lakers, Howard is seen by both them and him as the future. He has yet to make any promises about re-signing with the Lakers when he becomes a free agent this summer, but continued to sound as if his plans don't include any other teams. The power shift, he made clear, is already underway.
"I know who (Bryant) is to this team, what he has been to this team for a long time," Howard continued. "But there's going to come a day where he's going to be gone, and that's when I have to step in and fill that void and take this team to the next level. That's why I'm here. That's why they wanted me here, and I'm going to do my job and my part to make sure this team gets there – and it starts with me.
"Even now, it starts with me. That's why I come in, and I work as hard as I can every day, don't take days off and all that stuff because I want to show these guys that I'm all about winning and I'm all about making sure this team gets to the top. That's all we say. At the top is us. That's where we want to be."
Edited by Bjork, December 23, 2012 - 03:02 PM.