For most of training camp, he's operated -- poor choice of words, I know -- without restrictions during practice, and in those end-of-scrimmage moments coach Lakers Mike Brown has allowed media to observe. I've seen Howard explode for dunks, face up and finish at the rim, and make a great weakside recovery to block a would-be dunker at the rim.
In 5-on-5 and post-practice drills, I've seen him wrestle for position against his fellow centers like a bear fighting for a honey baked ham. The most interesting moment, though, came Saturday, when Howard worked out on the Staples Center floor with assistant coaches Chuck Person and Darvin Ham.
They moved Howard around the right and left blocks, high and low, through a series of jump hooks, power dunks, face-ups and more. Watching the ball was easy enough, but most of the real work was happening from about the belly button down.
"We're teaching him new things. Not in terms of how to play, but how to be more effective in the post with his footwork," Person told me at practice earlier this week. "That's the thing that we're trying to accomplish with him. We teach his feet, we teach the proper footwork. It's just like Kobe. It's the same footwork whether you're in the post, on the elbow, or on the perimeter. It's still the feet that have to be sound. The less violent you are with your movements, then the more efficient you will become. Sometimes, Dwight in the past, his feet have come too far outside his shoulders, and he'll lose power and he'll lose balance. We're trying to keep him in that small, confined area where he's always quick, he's always powerful, and he's always explosive."
We all know about Howard's athleticism, and while the polish of his offensive game is often criticized -- too much so, given his actual production -- Person says Howard "has the best feet I have seen in a long time on a big man."
The hope, from a fundamentals standpoint, is to expand Howard's options. There are times when overpowering a defender isn't the best choice. When bodied up by a tree stump-type like Chuck Hayes, who lives under opponents like a bridge troll and is equally difficult to move, sometimes overpowering isn't a choice at all.
At that point, technique is key.
"You go to something else. And we've given him something else to go to," Person said. "Whether he's backing in or turning to face, he can always be in a position of strength because he has good feet. And he has quick feet. So we're teaching him to go from quickness to power, versus from power to power."
For Howard, though, the benefits aren't simply about increasing his efficiency and effectiveness as a post scorer. Improving his fundamentals is also an important aspect of keeping his back healthy post-surgery. After Saturday's game, in discussing the pregame workout, Ham noted that the hope is for Howard to more effectively engage his core muscles in the post, simultaneously making his base stronger while taking a load off his back.
A healthier body position means a healthier body.
"When he gets narrow, he bends over. When they're too wide, he leans back on his heels," Person said. "That always has an effect on [his back]. There's always a reaction he has to have."
Person understands the value of giving these details more attention, having gone through back surgery himself.
"You have to learn things correctly. I don't know about different, because when you're not injured you're supposed to do the correct things anyway. But more so after you've had some type of surgery like Dwight's had," he said.
Howard is certainly amenable to instruction, but there is a substantial amount of muscle memory to unlearn.
"That's the correct way to do things. Every time you extend forward without using your legs, you're putting more pressure on your back. So it's just the little things that can help me stabilize my back more, so there won't be any more problems," he says. "[But] it's very hard. It's hard. Just like with anything, if you've been doing something a long time a certain way, it's hard to do it a different way."
Howard is hardly the first player to gloss over shortcomings in fundamentals with supreme natural gifts, and it's reasonable to wonder how effectively he can alter old habits. Still, nothing quite crystallizes the need for change like major surgery, particularly for someone like Howard, whose perpetual health and near-perfect physique helped create an air of physical invincibility.
At 26, Howard isn't old, but he's now at a point where a lack of attention to detail has real consequences. It happens to all players, whether through physical injury or age stripping away the ability to shake off those late-night junk food runs. If Howard can internalize the tweaks presented by the coaching staff, the result will be the double benefit of more effective play on the court and less risk of having to stay off it.