With a record of 23-27, the Lakers have failed to reach the gaudy expectations that were placed before them as the All-Star break approaches. After the big offseason acquisitions of Howard and point guard Steve Nash, L.A. was endowed with a championship-or-bust label.
Injuries have plagued this talented squad, with Pau Gasol's recent long-term setback making it all the more critical that L.A. starts winning on a consistent basis now.
And that will most likely mean that Howard will continue to battle through his nagging shoulder injury. Offseason back surgery was a significant setback for Howard finding his groove early on, and now he has displayed even more fragility.
Kobe Bryant has been known to play through a myriad of ailments, and recently intimated that Howard must be on the court at all costs due to the winning culture of the Lakers' organization (via ESPN):
(Howard) has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is...It's win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That's just how (the Lakers) do it. And that's foreign to him.
Those are strong words by Bryant, who is clearly trying to light a fire under Howard. Despite his dominant presence on the defensive end, he has drawn criticism for not playing with enough of a consistent edge.
Howard returned for the team's most recent blowout loss to the Boston Celtics after missing three games. He spoke on Friday about how the shoulder felt, as documented by Tom Layman of the Boston Herald:
It was hurting out there a little bit. There was a couple times where I felt it, but I just tried not to think about it and just be as strong as I can and not try to nurse it.
I was hoping to come back (last night) anyway. That was the plan. I tried to work myself into shape and make sure that my shoulder was going to hold up. It did for the most part.
These comments seem to dismiss the assertion that Bryant's urging forced him back into the lineup, as Thursday evening seemed to be the target date for his return anyway.
Alex Kennedy of HOOPSWORLD.com provided his own stinging comments on Howard after head coach Mike D'Antoni revealed that Howard had been cleared to play for a while.
Results from Howard this season have been ultimately disappointing, and his most recent effort in Boston produced just nine points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes before fouling out. He is averaging 16.3 points, his lowest total in seven seasons, and his 11.8 rebounds per game are fewest since his rookie year.
If L.A. fails to tap into its immense potential soon, fingers will continue to be pointed. Unfortunately for Howard, he will be one of the main culprits for the trials and tribulations the Lakers have endured.
Only Howard knows how his body truly feels, but he must raise his level of play and help the Lakers' 25th-ranked scoring defense. He is fully capable of doing just that, and the impending All-Star break should give him time to get into better playing shape.
Until that happens, though, the criticism both in the media and in Howard's own locker room is unlikely to waver.