Back on top?
Early return may have hurt him
While Dwight Howard's speedy return from back surgery was admirable and gutsy, there's a strong possibility he returned too soon and jeopardized his long-term chances of returning to his pre-injury dominance.
As Howard stated on several occasions, he should have been out for close to a year after his surgery. Instead, he returned after six months and never looked more than 75 percent healthy.
Back injuries can heal with proper rest only. If the process is rushed, the window for a full recovery can be lost altogether. More importantly, back injuries often recur and linger for the duration of a player's career. Any wrong twist, turn or fall can aggravate them. Just ask Steve Nash.
Moving forward, Howard's size, skills and ability to draw fouls are enough for him to remain a legitimate offensive option. Defensively, however, he's still far from the stalwart that led the Magic to a top-six defensive rating in five of his last six years in Orlando.
It's clear his mobility and explosion have been compromised, preventing him from covering defensive floor space like he used to. Even after the All-Star break, when Howard appeared to move more spryly, the Lakers' defensive rating remained below average (16th) and insignificantly better than their season ranking (18th).
Coming back from an injury too early is never a smart idea. We have seen this play out before. It often results in a player never fully recovering to his usual self, especially athletically. For a guy like Howard, whose strengths revolve around his athletic advantages, that can't be beneficial. There's also the risk of reinjury or injuring other body parts, such as the torn right labrum he suffered during the season.
The current version of Howard is still in the conversation for best center in the league. He just doesn't have the elite athleticism that made him the game's best two-way big man. If history is any indication, chances are he doesn't get it back.
He's entering his prime
There are two key factors to consider when trying to evaluate Dwight Howard's numbers last season.
The first one is easy. Howard, by all accounts, shouldn't have even been back on the court until January or February after having back surgery in late April. Not only was he on the court for the season opener, but he was on the court at the first day of training camp. Howard then suffered a torn right labrum in his right shoulder in early January but played through the pain instead of getting season-ending surgery.
Despite these injuries, Howard still averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game while missing only six games all season.
Some may look at these numbers and say they're slightly off from his Orlando Magic averages. That's were the second key comes into place.
Howard is now playing on a team with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace instead of a supporting cast that finished with the worst record in the NBA this season. Of course Howard's numbers are going to take a hit. So he's averaging about three to four fewer points per game and two to three fewer rebounds than he did in his last couple of years in Orlando. That's what tends to happen when you're no longer the top option.
That being said, a healthy Howard is certainly capable of averaging 20 points and 14 rebounds next season for the Lakers. Howard is 27 years old and just entering the prime of his career. He wasn't far off from his pre-injury form while he was battling his ailments, and there's no reason to think he won't get there now that he's fully healthy.