The Houston Rockets’ decision to give Dwight Howard a maximum contract was a call almost any team would have made if given the chance. He was easily the hottest free agent of the 2013 class. Early indications from the court are that his market value was mostly warranted.
The Rockets have started with a 3-0 record, and they’ve gotten it through means they couldn’t have last year: They’ve won with defense and rebounding.
Howard’s presence in the paint makes just that much of a difference for his team’s defense. What was a bottom-three defense last year (measured by points allowed per game) is now sixth in the league at this season’s onset. Consider this jump no coincidence. Howard was the de facto Defensive Player of the Year—winning the award an unprecedented three times in a row—for good reason.
Dwight’s league-leading 17 rebounds per game have also partially made up for some of the Rockets' early-season turnover problems—thus far, Houston is averaging a staggering 20 turnovers per game, tied with the Indiana Pacers for most in the NBA. Without the extra possessions Howard gifts them back on the boards, it’s easy to see this team being 0-3 at this point of the season.
Howard has been effective on offense as well. He’s averaging 15 points per game on 50 percent shooting, taking just under 11 shots per game. His efficiency through his first few games has some wondering if the team might be better off running more of their offense through his hands in the post.
Perhaps most encouraging is Howard’s not biting the media apple most recently dangled in front of him. After Mark Cuban referred to Dwight’s decision not to sign with his Dallas Mavericks as “a mistake,” Howard had no response within the press. He simply played an effective game, scoring 13 and grabbing 16 rebounds in a 113-105 victory over the Mavs.
Howard has also looked of lighter spirits—which is required for him to play effectively—and showed heightened promise at the essential task of running the pick and roll with Jeremy Lin.
The Less Good
Whether it’s the right move to pair Howard with fellow natural center Omer Asik in the frontcourt is still less clear. While the two have combined for a monstrous rebounding tandem and clogged up the lane impressively on defense, their offensive roles remain a bit enigmatic.
Asik has been made to operate a bit further from the hoop than he’s comfortable with in order to free the rim for more Howard shots. This arrangement is good for getting Dwight’s game going, but it essentially renders Asik useless on offense.
Joining Howard with Asik was an integral part in Houston’s decision to sign the All-Star center, and it’s an aspect of the deal that needs more time for a proper appraisal. But early indications suggest that the skeptics of the lineup were right. Howard and Asik’s offensive comfort zones simply overlap too much. Asik’s sagging 11.45 PER through the first three games is a testament to how much of a castoff he is in his new offense.
Houston hasn’t needed offense from each of its five starters, though—not yet. There will come a game when they will, however, need scoring from every place they can get it. If sharing the court with Howard, Asik is merely a defensive specialist, and the question of whether the Rockets might be better served by a more versatile second big man will continue to swirl around the team. It’s still an essential angle on the Howard signing.
Howard's chemistry with James Harden is a still developing thing, on the floor. The jury's still out, as it will be good to see the two come to some sort of visible agreement about how often to defer to each other, and about how to best use the space that each creates, offensively.
So far? Very little. Howard did rear his petulant head once, making outlandish comments about the Orlando Magic allowing Tobias Harris to wear his former No. 12. He said that Harris wearing his number “upset” him.
Otherwise, Howard has steered clear of media land mines and been as effective as anyone could have asked for through the season’s early stages. He's regained his vaunted explosion and gelled well with fellow superstar James Harden, showing no signs of dissatisfaction while Harden regularly gets more shots. Let's hope it all continues.