By Ben Golliver
The Lakers need all hands on deck for their sprint toward the playoffs. But an ailing shoulder has sidelined Dwight Howard for the last week, apparently testing the patience of Kobe Bryant.
The All-Star guard seemed to suggest in an ESPNBoston.com interview on Wednesday that the time is now for Howard to return.
"We don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal," Bryant said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with ESPNBoston.com's Jackie MacMullan. "We need some urgency."
"[Howard] has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is," Bryant told MacMullan. "It's win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That's just how [the Lakers] do it. And that's foreign to him."
The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that Howard dismissed the notion that he lacked urgency to return and preached the virtues of the bigger picture.
"He's not a doctor. I'm not a doctor. So that's his opinion," Howard said. "I mean, I want to play. But at the same time, this is my career, this is my future, this is my life. I can't leave that up to anybody else because nobody else is going to take care of me.
"If people are [ticked] off that I don't play, that I do play, whatever it may be, so what? This is my career. If I go down, then what? Everybody's life is going to go on. I don't want to have to have another summer where I'm rehabbing and, you know, trying to get healthy again. I want to come back and have another great year."
The Times further reported that Bryant clarified Thursday that he was not suggesting that Howard needed to return immediately from his injury.
"Not even a little bit," Bryant said in a quiet moment after the team's morning shoot-around, adding that he was surprised at the tone of the ESPN story. "In this case, it's not legitimate. I was shocked."
Howard, 27, suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder in January. He was initially listed as out indefinitely, and he missed three games before coming back on Jan. 13. He reaggravated the injury during a Jan. 30 game against the Suns and underwent platelet rich plasma (PRP) treatment in an attempt to help the healing process. He sat out the Lakers' last three games before going through shootaround on Thursday. He's listed as a game-time decision for Thursday night's game in Boston.
The "urgency" factor increased for the Lakers this week when Pau Gasol was lost to a foot injury that is expected to sideline him for at least one month. Reserve forward Jordan Hill sustained a season-ending hip injury in January, too, leaving Howard, forwards Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison and rookie center Robert Sacre as the team's only "big men."
This is a classic "chickens coming home to roost" scenario for Howard, whose disastrous handling of his free agency and eventual exit from Orlando has found another way to catch up with him here. One of the NBA's most physically imposing and durable players, Howard -- who missed just seven games total over his first seven seasons -- has played through pain after undergoing back surgery last season, saying recently that his legs even "tingle" at times. His reputation, until the last two seasons, was as a physical beast you could count on putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds every night.
Had he not waffled, deceived and refused to commit to a franchise long term, the notion that he wasn't returning from injury in a proper timeline wouldn't be a legitimate topic of discussion for Bryant (assuming he did) or anybody else. His track record would speak for itself and there would be no reason to doubt him. Calling out a person (or teammate) for not returning from an injury quickly enough amounts to a character attack in professional sports; not only are you saying that the person is a wimp but that he's also letting down the rest of his team. Aiming that type of argument at Howard would sound ludicrous going solely off of his play and availability from 2004-2010. But his off-court antics now get conflated with anything that goes wrong on the court or in the training room.
Howard has further painted himself into a corner by refusing to discuss his future with the Lakers, saying only that he's committed to trying to win a championship this season. Combine that hesitation with his statements that he doesn't want to be rehabilitating this summer and that it's "my career," and the door is open wide for critics to suggest he's putting himself above the team. The emphasis should be on the word "career" -- because avoiding long-term damage or an extended rehabilitation is always the top priority -- but the only word people hear in that sentence is "my" because of the hangover from the "Dwightmare." That saga included a trade request; his exercising his contract option for 2012-13 instead of signing a long-term deal; a ludicrous press conference in which he expressed his "loyalty" to the Magic; an awkward encounter with former coach Stan Van Gundy; the dismissals of Van Gundy and former GM Otis Smith; a blockbuster trade to the Lakers; and another full season of impending free agency limbo.
Is it totally fair or accurate to accuse Howard of putting his own interests in front of those of the Lakers when it comes to his health? Not really, but it's a line of criticism that derives directly from his bumbling flakiness over the last few years. Until he puts down roots by signing a long-term contract, no one will truly trust him, not even when it comes to the physical pain that he's feeling, a topic in which he should be unquestionably regarded as the world's leading expert. A man nicknamed "Superman" shouldn't have to answer questions about his toughness, and he wouldn't if he had stayed out of his own way by making up his mind.