While Dwight Howard’s rehabbing his back, Lakers will feel effect

The rationale for the Lakers essentially trading Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard remains simple.

“We got the best,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said this offseason.

But there’s also another issue. The Lakers may have had a healthy Bynum, but they rid themselves the risk in absorbing another one of his long-term injuries. To do so, the Lakers took the short-term hit that they may play without Howard to open the season as he rehabs his surgically repaired back. Considering he’s only missed seven games in his eight-year career prior to his back injury last March, it’s understandable the Lakers expect this won’t be a long-term issue.

No one should fret because Howard won’t play in the preseason opener Oct. 7 against Golden State (except for Lakers fans attending the actual game in Fresno). And no one should wonder if Howard’s vague timetable means he’s experienced more setbacks (the Lakers and Howard say that’s not the case). Still, Howard’s absence will affect various team dynamics, both good and bad. Below is a look at them.


Increased role for Pau Gasol

The Good: After spending over a year adapting to a reduced role, the Lakers forward once again becomes the team’s focal point inside. Without Howard’s presence, Gasol can move freely in the low post. The newly installed Princeton offense should tap into his versatile skill set as both a passer and midrange shooter. Steve Nash’s presence increases both the likelihood that Gasol will run pick-and-roll sets for easier looks and that he’ll actually receive the ball. Mix those elements in with Gasol’s relief that he’s no longer considered trade bait, and it’s safe to assume he’ll start the 2012-13 season with renewed purpose and productivity.

Regardless of when Howard returns, Gasol’s heavier workload could provide long-term benefits. Gasol will feel a larger sense of ownership. He’ll have increased opportunities to deepen on-court chemistry with Nash. It could also revive the strong bond Bryant and Gasol once displayed as a formidable one-two punch that became noticeably inconsistent last season.

The Bad: For such a veteran-laden team, the Lakers championship prospects largely hinge on health. That means limiting minutes whenever necessary and minimizing the burnout that inevitably arises during the NBA’s 82-game season. Even if the Lakers have better frontcourt depth than in recent seasons, Howard’s absence still puts a further onus on Gasol to assume more playing time. Gasol is currently healthy and rested after the 2012 London Olympics. But he’s only two years removed from falling to fatigue after filling in at center while Bynum recovered from knee surgery. Granted, Bynum sat out 24 games. But even an offseason filled with rest wasn’t enough to keep Gasol energetic enough.

There are also on-court chemistry implications too. The Lakers will be spending at least the first part of the season using Gasol as the focal point in the post instead of figuring out the right balance between featuring both Gasol and Howard. Because of Gasol’s team-mindset, he’ll immediately fall in line. But Howard’s absence could prolong the Lakers’ transition period in finding the perfect offensive synergy among their star-studded starting lineup.

Howard loses time to fit in with his new teammates

The Good: Since when do the Lakers and their fans worry about the regular season? That time usually marks mere boredom before the real games start in the NBA postseason. And with the Lakers fielding a vastly improved roster, that attitude shouldn’t change.

That doesn’t mean the Lakers shouldn’t take the regular season seriously. But they understand all too well their need to pace themselves for when it counts the most. As much as it’d be fun for Laker fans to see Howard right away in purple and gold, his appearance early in the season will have minimal influence in how the Lakers look in April and perhaps June. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ championship aspirations will mostly hinge on how well this veteran group stays healthy. Playing Howard at less than full strength seriously jeopardizes this goal even if it results in a few extra regular season wins.

The Bad: Howard’s reeling from an adversarial year in which he’s suddenly taken on LeBron James’ role as the NBA’s biggest villain. Howard can best restore his reputation by playing well on the court. But with the injury sidelining him, it could further test whether he can handle the increased pressure he’s put himself in and remain as the NBA’s best center.

His otherwise healthy eight-year career suggests he’ll be fine once his back fully heals. But any lost games further delay any transition period he’ll face in fitting with such a talented roster. Running pick-and-roll sets with Nash and leading the team on defense may come naturally to him. But understanding how he fits into the offensive dynamic could become an adjustment, no matter how small. In ideal scenarios, these kinks should be ironed out in training camp and not in the middle of the season.

More opportunities for other front-line players

The Good: Unlike in past seasons, the Lakers are more equipped to handle injuries to their frontcourt. Jordan Hill’s energy and Antawn Jamison’s reserve scoring should provide enough so that Gasol isn’t carrying the entire load. The Lakers also have Earl Clark and Robert Sacre to use so that no one burns out from the heavy minutes. This also gives Lakers Coach Mike Brown greater flexibility in figuring out how he wants to iron out his rotation.

The Bad: None of the Lakers’ reserves can truly make up for Howard’s absence. Hill’s grinding mentality may work on defense and on the boards, but he has little to no offensive moves to complement Gasol’s post presence. Meanwhile, Jamison remains a steady scoring presence but lacks the speed to shut down opposing post players inside. And it remains to be seen whether Clark and Sacre could contribute anything of significance.

The Lakers lose a key defender

The Good: Howard’s absence could force the Lakers into adopting a stronger defensive mentality than relying on Howard to bail out poor rotations. That means the Lakers will have to stay more disciplined in helping out Nash and Kobe Bryant on the perimeter. They’ll have to maintain playing at a methodical offensive pace so that teams don’t crush them in transition. Metta World Peace will focus more on helping the defense stay organized than just shutting down an opposing team’s top player. The Lakers’ front line in Gasol, Hill and Jamison will have to communicate enough so they’re showing out on pick-and-rolls.

The Bad: No matter how much effort the Lakers show on defense, none have the speed and athleticism Howard brings. He’s earned the league’s defensive player of the year award in three of the past four seasons because of varying defensive skill sets. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Howard stayed efficient last season in guarding post players in isolation (25th), on spot-up shots (Howard 46th) and on pick-and-roll sets (Howard 44th). That gives the Lakers an extra line of defense should opposing backcourts beat an aging Nash off the dribble. When they play the Clippers in their third game of the season on Nov. 2, the Lakers also won’t have enough size to match up against some of their small and fast lineups.

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