Ian Mahinmi has filled in for Dwight Howard this preseason. (Noah K. Murray/Associated Press)

DETROIT — Within their circle of trust, Washington Wizards players know new center Dwight Howard had to leave the team during its two-game road trip to return home for a pain-relieving injection for what has now been determined to be an issue stemming from his buttocks muscle.

They’re fully aware that Howard — who came to Washington to be the most athletic and accomplished big man of this Wizards era — has not run a single play with his teammates, not even in pickup games, since he signed in July.

What’s unknown is the impact Howard’s injury and prolonged absence will have on the start of the regular season, which gets underway next week.

Center Ian Mahinmi has stepped into the starting lineup in place of Howard during the preseason, and if Howard remains on the sideline, Mahinmi would conceivably continue in that role when the real schedule tips off Oct. 18. But even Mahinmi remains in the dark about Howard’s return.

“Honestly, I don’t know what the [status] is on Dwight. I don’t know [the answer to] ‘When is he going to come back?’ ” Mahinmi said.

“I’m preparing myself to start,” he added. “If he’s back, I’ve got to come off the bench. No big deal. I’ll come off the bench.”

Though the Wizards are not predicting Howard’s status, they’ve adjusted for an immediate future without him.

Since late September, the Wizards had publicly described Howard’s injury as back soreness. On Monday, however, Howard visited a hip specialist in New York. It was determined that the tightness Howard has been experiencing was because of his piriformis muscle putting pressure on the sciatic nerve. The muscle is located within the buttock and such an injury can affect the lower body and movement, as well as cause discomfort after periods of sitting. Howard felt soreness following the team’s flight to New York this past weekend, according to Coach Scott Brooks.

While Howard has been recovering, the Wizards kept on with Mahinmi. After two weeks of practices and exhibition games, Mahinmi feels as connected as he’s ever been to the usual starters. The occasional mistimed pass may pop up — chemistry takes a while — but Mahinmi can see the defensive bond forming within the starting five and he feels comfortable in his role as chief rim protector.

In Washington’s 110-98 win over the New York Knicks on Monday, Mahinmi led the team with two blocks, had a deflection and also drew a charge.

"Defensively, I feel like we are really where we need to be right now,” Mahinmi said. “When we’re focused and locked in, we have a lot of flexibility as far as the lineups and guys are interchangeable and we can switch a lot.”

Said John Wall: "[Mahinmi] communicating and blocking shots and rebounding, that’s something we can have.”

While Howard was the centerpiece of a summer in which the Wizards built their most talented roster in more than a decade, players believe there’s still enough depth and experience.

Jason Smith has played backup center minutes before. Second-year man Thomas Bryant, who hyperextended his left knee and sprained his left ankle on Monday night, could be considered an option if Brooks broadens the rotation. Over three preseason games, Washington has experimented with sending forwards Markieff Morris, Jeff Green and Otto Porter Jr. (albeit briefly) to the five spot.

For these reasons, Smith’s expression remained unchanged and his tone upbeat when asked about the team having enough while Howard recovers.

“This is a great team,” Smith said. “This is probably the best team on paper we’ve had in a long time.”

Before the Knicks game, Brooks said it’s possible Howard will not make his debut in the regular-season opener against the Miami Heat if he does not play in the team’s final two exhibition games. The Wizards have not offered a timetable for Howard beyond Brooks saying he will be considered “day-to-day.”

So while the games do not count this week and everything about the Wizards still sounds good in theory, the players are not worried.

“I don’t think so right now,” Wall responded when asked if there’s cause for concern in the locker room. “I think when you get to the regular season and [Howard’s injury] gets real bad, that’s tough for us, but he’s been working out and taking the next step as he can. That’s all we can do is sit back and wait to see what happens after that.”

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