OKLAHOMA CITY — Dwight Howard was roundly criticized for not playing through the pain of a torn labrum in his shoulder earlier in the season. But has the Los Angeles Lakers’ center received fair praise for playing this season from Day One after undergoing back surgery just seven months earlier?
After Wednesday morning’s shootaround in preparation for tonight’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT), Howard reflected on the surgery and the recovery process.
“Looking back on it I could have sat the whole season until now and started playing now, but I just felt like we have such a great opportunity,” Howard said. “Some of these guys, their windows for winning are very small and I just wanted to get back and try do whatever I can to help this team, knowing that I wasn’t in great shape. My body wasn’t all the way there yet, but I wanted to do whatever I could to help this team win.”
Howard has played in 54 of the Lakers’ 60 games and has averaged 16.1 points and 12.0 rebounds. When he missed games with the shoulder injury, he took criticism for not playing through the pain from all angles, from teammate Kobe Bryant, who would later soften his stance, to TNT analysts Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.
“Sometimes I have gotten beat up for it, but that’s fine,” Howard said. “I took all those hits and I keep moving. I’ve been doing whatever I can to get back into the shape that I’ve always been into, and it takes a while. The people who watch games, they see me playing so they think that it’s all good, but it’s just a time thing. I’ve got to keep going, keep pushing myself and get better.”
Howard said he’s been told the recovery time from the type of back surgery he had is one year. And in an interesting twist, Howard said he has occasionally texted with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who was thought to be on his way back to coach the Lakers when the club fired Mike Brown, and recently told Sports Illustrated that the coach the Lakers hired instead, Mike D’Antoni, has not properly used Howard.
“I’ve asked people who really just helped me out, guys like Phil text me,” Howard said. “He understands how it is to come off back surgery. He just said it takes a full year to recover so you can’t beat yourself up over the things that are happening this year. That’s what I’m trying not to do.”
Howard underwent the surgery last April, which ended his season with the Orlando Magic. He was traded in August to L.A., where he had already been rehabbing his back. He said he was determined to play at the start of the season.
It’s certainly been a rough season, both mentally and physically as the star-studded Lakers fizzled out of the gate under Brown, who was canned after five games. He’s had an icy relationship with Bryant and he quickly became disenchanted with D’Antoni’s offense and his lack of touches on the block.
Things have finally taken a turn for the better over the last month with the Lakers winning 13 of their last 18 games and reaching the .500 mark at 30-30 heading into Wednesday’s measuring stick game against the reigning Western Conference champs.
Howard has looked more agile and explosive in recent games, and he acknowledges that he is only now starting to feel more like himself. He said he’s thought many times throughout the season that he came back too soon, but he said he’s forced those thoughts from his mind.
“I said that plenty of times but I don’t want myself to be thinking so much about what I should have done, what if I would have waited until this time or that time,” Howard said. “I just know the harder I push myself every day to get better every day, to get in shape, my body will respond. And then this summer after the season I get an opportunity to really train and get my body right.”