13 GOING ON 30
Howard sees himself as a post-up player, but D'Antoni feels that when Howard gets it on the low block the offense often dies, stymied by his not-so-soft jump hooks and his inability to pass out of double teams. And those strategic questions have gotten bundled up with the belief in some quarters that Howard is immature, doesn't play hard enough and lets his mind drift. On the court both Bryant and Nash have gone at Howard; off the court they've gone at him harder. But does Howard deserve those criticisms, which he also heard in Orlando?
To a degree, yes. At times his flakiness gives the impression that he's playing some version of a Sesame Street character—Mr. Smiley Long Legs one day, Mr. Mopey Pants another. It can be painful to witness the interactions between the 27-year-old and a small portion of the L.A. media that seems determined (with the player's complicity) to treat him like a child.
"Are you smiling again after this one, Dwight?" he was asked after he had 19 points and 18 rebounds in a 91--85 victory over Phoenix on Feb. 12. "Is the smile back?" And Dwight dutifully smiled wide.
Can that act, please. Both sides.
On the other hand, to blame Howard for everything that has gone wrong is patently unfair because he is not close to being 100% physically. And it's not just the torn labrum in his right shoulder that he suffered in early January—the injury that prompted Bryant to suggest that Howard's return must have more "urgency." (Kobe later said that his quote was misinterpreted as a callout.) There is every indication that Howard has not recovered fully from the back surgery he underwent last April. He has mentioned occasionally the "tingling" in his legs, but there was some eye rolling on the team about that, and his mantra these days is, "I don't want to talk about my back."
But the fact remains, Howard sometimes winces, appears fatigued and displays trouble holding on to balls thrown low, all relatable to his back surgery (never mind the labrum). That fatigue could also have something to do with his reluctance to embrace the pick-and-roll, since that forces him to be perpetually on the move. In the debacle last Thursday, Howard went up for a rebound and was outjumped by 6'5" Jamal Crawford of the Clippers, not because he was surprised or didn't hustle or didn't box out, but because he had no spring in his legs.
The situation couldn't be much worse for the Lakers: a player heading into free agency (Howard had only this year remaining on his contract when he was acquired last August from the Magic in a four-team deal) while being suspected, overtly or obliquely, of malingering.
Kupchak, who has insisted that he will not trade Howard, is on the big man's side. "I honestly thought there was a good chance Dwight wouldn't be coming back [from his back injury] until the first of the year," says Kupchak, who had surgery for a back injury when he was a Lakers player. "People don't understand how long it takes to recover from something like that."
Of course, Howard's not being at full strength wouldn't be so bad for L.A. if not for another post problem.