Through this season of epic failure in Los Angeles, with the injuries and inability to stamp the Lakers with his greatness, Dwight Howard walks ever so delicately up to a line that was not so much crossed as obliterated a year ago. He has been careful not to cross it this time, not to allow his image and name to be dragged down any lower than they were on his way out of Orlando.
Despite the inglorious start to a seven-game road trip in Phoenix on Wednesday night, punctuated by another thunderclap that was Howard's ailing right shoulder popping again, the Lakers have played better -- have finally showed some cohesion, some purpose, some fight. But the goal now is simply securing the eighth playoff spot in the West, something that would come as more of a relief than an accomplishment. As the calendar whizzes toward Howard's impending free agency on July 1, it isn't his image that has taken the hit this time. It's his stature in the game, his influence.
If Howard is one of the greats of his time, how could he be associated with a team that's six games under .500 as we hit February? A team with two other Hall of Famers, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash? A team that has hung 16 championship banners?