When Los Angeles shipped out Andrew Bynum in favor of Howard, the team thought it was latching onto the most dominant center in the game, someone who could dominate the post and completely reverse an underwhelming defensive narrative.
To that end, Howard hasn't quite lived up to expectations.
Going so far as to call the big man a bust or inadequate is unjustified, but something just wasn't right. He wasn't as explosive, aggressive or as effective. His surgically repaired (but not yet healed) back was visibly impeding his impact on the game and the Lakers future.
Unlike 2012—a year marked by injuries, rumors and transition—2013 hasn't been cruel to Howard. His torn labrum was considered an unfortunate setback by many, yet it really proved to be a blessing in an intricately cloaked disguise.
Because Howard needed rest—not just to cure his shoulder, but to remedy his back issues. Remember, he wasn't supposed to be ready in time for the season; he wasn't supposed to play until January. But he did. For the sake of his reputation, his future with the Lakers and winning, he played through pain.
The torn labrum became too much, though, and he was forced to sit out three games. And that's all the rest and relaxation Howard needed.
Since returning to the lineup, the center is averaging 26.5 points, 15 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. More importantly, in the two contests he's participated in, he's hoisting up a combined 14.5 shots a night, a far cry from the 10.9 he's averaging on the season.
Physically, Howard appears to be navigating the floor with ease, and he hasn't hesitated to play above the rim. He's attacking on both sides of the ball without fear and is making his presence felt more than ever.
And Howard himself (via Janis Carr of the Orange County Register) concurs with such observations:
“I did feel a lot better tonight,” said Howard, who torched the Bucks for 31 points and 16 boards. “I just have to continue to play hard.
“My fitness is coming back a little bit. I’m in much better shape and they are finding me in the right spots. We just have to continue to play with energy and effort and believe we can turn this thing around.”
Those are really the first words of encouragement Howard has offered all season. He's preached patience for the entire campaign and here in 2013, that composure seems to be paying off.
Even before Howard received some much needed time off, you could tell that he was approaching a different level. To begin the New Year, Howard has posted four double-doubles in five tries, and has scored fewer than 20 points just twice.
While sitting by his locker after the game, Kobe Bryant said that he's "extremely" impressed by Howard's recent play, adding that the two superstars are finally learning how to play more effectively together.
"If I see a crack in the lane, I'm going to try and get him the ball and we're starting to get a better connection," Bryant said. "In the start of the season, some of those passes would either go out of bounds or he wasn't ready for them. Now we're starting to get a better connection where I can hit him and he's finishing."
Offensively, there's no question Howard is more comfortable. From the wide-legged screens he sets to the way he rolls off those screens to his suddenly varied finishes at the rim, he's grasping the flow of Los Angeles' offense much better.
At one point in December, there was a stretch where Howard attempted just 22 shots in three games. In the last two games alone, he's hoisted up 29, a testament to how much more aggressive and involved he has become.
Do Howard's 17.8 points and 12.6 rebounds a night still pale in comparison to the 20.6 and 14.5 he put up only last season?
Absolutely, yet keep in mind those 17.8 points and 12.6 rebounds have come on a rigid back and within an offense that was nearly devoid of any chemistry. That he was able to put up such numbers is actually incredible.
As is his sudden resurgence.
Some would be quick to point to the the small sample size to which we have to measure Howard's production in 2013 against. Surely five games isn't enough to conclude anything.
Except it is.
This isn't a Jeremy Lin we're talking about. This is Howard, a decorated performer, someone who has already proved his worth. His impact is not one the Lakers were hoping for, it was one they were waiting for. Because they knew what he was capable of; they knew what he was eventually going to accomplish.
That waiting has now paid off.
Finally, Los Angeles is getting a bird's eye view of the the league's best center; finally, the Lakers have 6'11" and 265 pounds worth of hope.
The same Howard who has always carved up opposing defenses and thwarted opposing offenses. The same Howard who stands to fuel the Lakers' turnaround.
And the same Howard who is here to stay, mostly because he never actually left.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 15, 2013.
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