This isn't the same Howard we watched for the better half of the NBA's regular season. Not only is he healthy, he's just, well, different.
We've watched him grab more rebounds and score more points, but that's not necessarily how he's different. It's a part of it. But not all of it.
Howard's increased involvement and subsequent production can be attributed to his health. His back and shoulders limited him physically for a large chunk of the season, and now that he has his mobility and explosiveness back, he's been able to hit the glass harder, block additional shots and play above the rim more.
His increased involvement on the offensive end also has something to do with tactical adjustments. The Lakers are running the ball through the post more, so he has more opportunities to score. Which means he's taking more shots. And when he takes more shots and is afforded the opportunity to score, Los Angeles wins. A lot. Like a contender would win even.
But you know this. You've read it, seen it and understood it. You know this is what the Lakers have needed. Yet, it's not all they need.
Howard hasn't exactly been himself the entire season. He hasn't been a shell of who he was with the Orlando Magic, but emotionally, he hasn't been in the same state, because he wasn't in the same situation.
What the Lakers have needed in Howard was a leader. A vocal fixture who would hold his teammates accountable and serve as a rock for them to lean on. Or rather, an additional rock.
Kobe Bryant is always going to be someone the Lakers need and rely on. But they needed Dwight to be that someone too, to carry himself with that same bravado he did while with the Magic.
He hasn't, though. Either out of fear for displacing Bryant, sheer inconvenience or general role confusion, he simply hasn't. The Lakers haven't looked to him and Kobe to lead them, they've looked to just Kobe.
Which wasn't going to work. It didn't work.
Sacrifices need to be made in the name of superteams. Just ask Dwyane Wade. He took a gargantuan-sized step back when LeBron James came to town. Making that sacrifice, however, didn't comprise of him disappearing. He's still a leader, an alpha dog in his own right. He merely defers to someone else when it's needed.
It's never been that way for Howard and Bryant. Perhaps because Bryant was too proud to take that emotional step back or perhaps because as the player who was new in town, Howard didn't know what the Lakers expected of him. Or maybe it was both.
All we know is that the Howard who was only making headlines for jokes or internal feuds is gone. He still does all those things, but he's now also a leader. Not just in the box score, but everywhere. On the court, on the bench and in the locker room. And people have taken notice.
Prior to Los Angeles' riveting victory over the Houston Rockets, Pau Gasol praised Howard for the additional responsibility he has assumed since Kobe went down (via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News):
But he hardly shied away from calling himself "the leader of the team" with Bryant remaining sidelined for at least the next six to nine months. Howard has one trusty ally in ensuring that his increased role goes smoothly.
Pau Gasol. "He's been trying to be a vocal leader throughout the year," Gasol said of Howard. "He feels some ownership on this team and that's something you have to respect. The franchise wants him here long-term. That's why he feels that way."
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak called Howard "our main guy" and Gasol "one of our best players."
That "ownership" Pau referenced to hasn't been there all season. No, I'm not a fly on Howard's apartment wall or his nightly apple pie (kidding), but I just know. We all just know.
And how could it be? He's been nothing but non-committal about his future in Los Angeles. How could he take ownership of a team he wasn't sure if he wanted to call his?
Once he began to play better and the ball found its way to him more, I fully believe he began to understand what he meant to this team. Then Kobe went down, and Los Angeles' need to have him in the picture only increased. Next, Sam Amick of USA Today reported that he was preparing to re-sign with the Lakers over the offseason. And finally, there is the Dwight we see now, taking ownership of this team. Taking ownership of his team.
This is the Howard the Lakers have needed all season. Desperately. But it was a version of the big man that wasn't apparent in conjunction with his time spent alongside Kobe. At least, not entirely.
Howard and Bryant can exist in harmony, they can play under one roof. This isn't a nefarious dyad that can't be salvaged. Before the Mamba went down we began to see more of the Howard we're seeing now. The confident one, who knew what he was in Hollywood to do and how important it was that he was there to do it.
We laugh at his affable antics and his motivational speeches that sound more like parodies.
That he understands he is in a position where he needs to be giving speeches and driving his teammates is important, though. So while his soliloquies are something for us to jest at, the fact that he's giving them is not.
"Dwight is very talented and understands he's the franchise player and is taking responsibility," Metta World Peace said (via Medina).
This is what the Lakers have needed. This is what they have been waiting for.
Howard isn't supposed to be a complementary piece. He's meant to lead. And we can't emphasize this enough, because this hasn't been the prevalent edition of Howard for the entire season. Just a fraction of it.
Only now is Howard finding himself within this team dynamic and maintaining his sense of appreciation and allegiance. Not as Kobe's sidekick or the future of this team, but as himself.
"I'm not going to put extra pressure on myself to do what Kobe did in 17 years in the playoffs," Howard said (via Medina). "That can't be duplicated in a month or two months. What I can do is go out there every night and give everything I got."
And that's what he's doing. On the court, and off it. Every single night. Just like the Lakers initially envisioned.
Just like they've always needed.
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