If Dwight Howard's 2012-13 campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers is viewed as anything less than dominant, it is either sad commentary on our inflated expectations or just what happens when the biggest of bigs goes to the biggest of markets.
Maybe it's both.
You don't have to be in love with Howard to understand this much. By any ordinary metric, he was nothing short of stellar last season. Despite possessing a defense-first skill set that doesn't always translate into the best of efficiency ratings, Howard's 19.48 PER still ranked in the neighborhood of more offensively inclined centers like Al Jefferson, Demarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol and Greg Monroe, according to ESPN.
When it comes to superstars of Howard's caliber, ordinary metrics don't count for much, though.
Houston Rockets fans won't be any more charitable than Los Angeles fans, and nor should they be. Fortunately, they probably won't have to be—even if Howard's preseason rumblings sound eerily similar to last time around. Per the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, "The biggest thing is that we got to learn to play together. I’m always talking to the guys and telling them to be aware and be ready to make plays. I think we are all getting on the same page. I think we are going to be pretty good."
Nevertheless, there are important differences between the chemistry issues facing Howard then and now.
And more importantly, there are differences that have nothing to do with chemistry. Dwight will still be Dwight, for better or for worse, but there are a few good reasons to believe it'll be mostly for the better.
Rhythm and Blues
It's time to make some very legitimate excuses.
Once the good vibes subsided in the summer of 2012, Howard's focus turned to getting healthy for the season ahead. Regardless of expectations, that's no way to make an introduction. In basketball terms, it's also no way for a central contributor to develop a healthy rhythm.
Whatever "percent" of his full potential Howard reached at any given time, there was little doubt back surgery took a physical and psychological toll. You could have been fooled two games into the season when Howard posted 33 points and 14 rebounds in just his second outing as a Laker, but it didn't take much longer to realize something was awry.
Howard finished November scoring in single digits three times and attempting fewer than 10 field goals five times. Beyond his own recovery process, it didn't help that would-be savior Steve Nash missed all but two games in November and all but four a month later.
Nor did it help that Mike Brown—the head coach with whom Howard was first acquainted in his earliest days with his new team—was fired just five games into the season.
By February, Howard told Stephen A. Smith on ESPN Radio that his back was still just 75 percent of what it should be, and a nagging shoulder injury wasn't helping matters.
Add it all up, and Dwight's 2012-13 was a non-starter by no fault of his own. It's one thing to blame him for putting his foot in his mouth at inopportune junctures, but it's another entirely to pretend last season's on-court results were a harbinger of things to come.
With a restful offseason and clean slate in his back pocket, the worst-case scenarios in Houston are already a vastly improved starting point for Howard. He'll have the opportunity to settle into a clear role from the outset, focusing on his game rather than the noise and pain following him around this time last year.
A Kinder, Gentler Work Environment
Let's get one thing out of the way. You can't complain about Kobe Bryant's handling of Howard and his cheerier-than-thou baggage. The Lakers were, are and will be Bryant's baby, and he was fully entitled to make that abundantly clear coming into last season.
But if we're principally concerned with things functioning smoothly, entitlements don't matter. It's not about who's right or wrong; it's about doing the impossible, making two intractable personalities coexist. In other words, it may have been something neither Bryant nor Howard ever had any real control over.
If that sounds fatalistic, it is. Howard's personality was too big for him to be the new kid on a very well-established block.
No one's claiming ownership of the Rockets going into 2013-14. In fact, head coach Kevin McHale put that discussion to rest in advance according to the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech and Jonathan Feigen:
They all have personalities, and really, I don't know if you can say, "This guy's a designated leader." Players are going to follow who players follow, and they follow guys for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes there is the older guy they follow because the guy is full of wisdom and he helps them out all the time. Sometimes it is the high-energy guy they follow because they are just like, "That guy plays so hard." All that leadership stuff, as it always does, will take care of itself.
We probably shouldn't be surprised to find such a refreshing discourse on pluralistic leadership—not from a guy who shared the stage with the likes of Larry Bird and Robert Parish. Some in Houston's locker room will naturally gravitate towards Howard's sunny outlook. Others will find solace in James Harden's quiet excellence or Jeremy Lin's team-first commitment.
We should be optimistic about what this means for Howard. It's not that Howard's incapable of leading, but it would be an overstatement to suggest it's what he was born to do. Abandoning the conversation altogether removes a potential source of distraction and allows basketball to take center stage.
That's one more reason Howard will do the same.
A Little Help from His Friends
Between Steve Nash's on-again, off-again contributions and having to compete with the Pau Gasol for touches in the post, Howard was never put in a position to be dominant last season. He was instantly typecast as a supplementary scorer who should focus on picking up the slack for Mike D'Antoni's woeful defense.
Howard's Houston experience will be different in at least two ways.
First, the Rockets are younger, healthier and eager to run. With the Lakers, Howard was too often forced to get his touches in half-court sets (allowing the opposition the opportunity to collapse on him). He'll be at his best in the open court, where his superior athleticism is more difficult to contain.
Much as Howard's post game can continue to improve, he knows better than to fancy himself the next Hakeem Olajuwon. With Harden and Lin pushing the pace, that won't matter nearly as much.
Second, the Rockets have shooters all over the roster—obvious ones like Harden, Lin and Chandler Parsons and less obvious bench contributors like Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi. That puts Houston in position to replicate the inside-outside dynamic that Howard thrived in with the Orlando Magic.
Running and shooting alike will come more naturally in Houston thanks in no small part to the rotation's versatility, especially the potential for Parsons (and even Terrence Jones) to operate from the 4-spot. Whereas D'Antoni was forced to play Howard and Pau Gasol together for significant stretches, there's nothing stopping McHale from making mobility and firepower the cornerstone of his rotations.
In the final analysis, there's no guarantee Howard will average 20 or more points. This time, however, that will say more about Houston's range of options and how quickly that it gets out in front of the other team. It won't be due to elusive touches or a mismatched game plan.
Whatever Howard produces, what matters is how he gets there. It won't be effortless, and it won't overshadow Harden—but it will be dominant.