Will Dwight Howard Still Be a Laker at the End of the Season?

Victoria SterlingCorrespondent IJanuary 16, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 15:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates his basket and foul with Metta World Peace #15, Kobe Bryant #24 and Earl Clark #6 during a 104-88 win over the Milwaukee Bucks at Staples Center on January 15, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Numbers to contemplate: There are 16 games left until the All-Star break. The Los Angeles Lakers' current record is 17-21. Take a look at the Lakers' upcoming 16 opponents and see where you think the wins are.

To me, it looks like .500 ball. That means that heading into the break, the Lakers could be looking at a 25-29 record.

If that happens, and it’s a legitimate question if the Lakers can pull above .500, then all bets are off.  Just to squeeze into the number eight playoff spot, the Lakers would probably have to win in the neighborhood of 23 of the remaining 28 games.

Laker fans, based on what you’ve seen so far: Does this team look capable of doing that? Even if they do manage to sneak into the eighth seed, they will probably be swept by the terrifyingly dominant Thunder.

Look, it’s basketball. Anything can happen. The Lakers could get on a hot streak. Other teams could flounder, but it is silly to ignore what we’ve seen so far this season. 

What has that been? A team that started the summer with a dream roster has been behind the eight ball from the outset.

First was the wasted pre-season and a 1-4 regular start, followed by all the upheaval of the coaching change. Out with Mike Brown, in with Mike D’Antoni with a side of Zen Master flirtation thrown in for good measure. 

There is always drama around the Lakers. However, the aforementioned combined with the freak leg injury to Steve Nash, Dwight Howard playing himself into shape after back surgery and various other key injuries have left the Lakers shorthanded and unable to settle into a solid rotation so some good chemistry could develop. 

Which brings me to another observation. For the first couple of weeks in January prior to his shoulder injury, I didn’t think Howard was giving max effort. He was working hard on defense, but there were way too many times that I saw the team transition back on offense and there would be four Lakers down the court, all five opponents and Howard slowly loping back bringing up the rear.

I would frequently yell at the television that if you want to be Lob City 2.0 Dwight, you have to fly back on transition offense. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to quantify because it doesn’t show up in a box score. But it was definitely there. 

How do I know?  Because the effort and intensity changed after he came back from sitting while he rested his injured shoulder. Maybe that’s because he saw Robert Sacre and Earl Clark grab their playing time opportunities with both hands and demonstrate outstanding hustle and effort.

Lakers fans have expectations and they reward effort and hustle accordingly. Ask Kobe. Maybe Team Howard realized that the D12 coronation is no sure thing after all. 

Dwight seems to be a genuinely nice fellow. But nice doesn’t get you far with the Lakers. The Lakers are about wins. Specifically: championships. 

All of which leads me to this:  If the Lakers are at or below .500 at the All Star Break, everyone not named Kobe Bryant should be very nervous as the trade deadline approaches. At the top of that list will be Dwight Howard. Howard is an unrestricted free agent at the end (whenever it comes) of the Lakers 2012-13 season.

If you think for a minute that Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family will sit around while Howard publicly dither over whether he should remain a Laker or entertain other offers much as he did to Orlando, then you haven’t been paying attention. That will not happen. We’ve seen before how Kupchak regards centers who do not always give max effort. Enjoying Philly, Andrew Bynum?

I hope Team Howard understands that the Lakers aren’t going to hand over their franchise to just anyone. Just because the media anoints you the next face of the franchise doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

You must demonstrate by your play and effort a total commitment to championship basketball day in and day out. Howard could start by working on his free throws. Professional basketball players who shoot free throws in the 50 percent range drive me nuts. You’re leaving easy points on the table. This has to get cleaned up by whatever means necessary. 

On the Time Warner channel that now carries Lakers games locally, there is a goosebumps-inducing promo where Kupchak walks Howard around the practice facility and points out the retired Lakers jerseys up on the wall. He tells Howard that he wants to see his number 12 jersey up there in 10 or so years.

It’s really well done.

Left unsaid is that what those jerseys represent and what Kupchak is looking for from Howard: total commitment to excellence. 

A memo to fans and TV crews: Keep an eye on Mitch Kupchak. His demeanor in the stands and in any press he chooses to do will tell you a lot. Everyone is being evaluated. Hopefully that will translate into a sense of urgency and some more Ws in the win column.

The margin of error is razor thin.   The next two weeks will determine a lot. The Lakers have to make up ground and they need to start now.