He's once again leading the NBA in rebounding at 14.6 caroms collected per game, a number bolstered by a career-high-tying 26 on opening night against the Charlotte Bobcats. He's still a really bad shooter from the free-throw line—though, at least, he's hitting them with greater accuracy than a coin flip would predict (56.3 percent).
Most importantly, the Rockets are 4-1, with three wins by double digits. Their offense ranks among the most efficient in basketball, thanks to a scorching scoring machine on the interior, of which Dwight (17.4 points per game) is an integral part. According to NBA.com, 45.7 percent of Houston's points have thus far been scored in the paint, a mark that ranks fourth in the league.
On the whole, Dwight has looked happier and healthier than he did at any point last season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
And for good reason—he's now a year-and-a-half removed from major back surgery. He's coming off an eventful and fulfilling offseason, during which he set a course for his own professional future and got back to the sort of summer training schedule to which he'd previously been accustomed.
Oh, and now he has James Harden tossing him dime-tastic alley-oops off the pick-and-roll:
In short, Dwight Howard has looked pretty great so far. He's moving better and jumping higher, without the burden of a bad back or daunting expectations.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves here, folks. We've only had a week's worth of results on which to judge Howard's comeback. Only one of those games came against a team that qualified for the playoffs last season.
And that game—a 19-point drubbing on the road opposite the Los Angeles Clippers—stands as Houston's only loss to date. But that single defeat stands as the sort of measuring stick against which Howard and the Rockets will ultimately be judged.
In his return to the Staples Center, Howard hardly looked like the dominant force he'd been when he was still racking up MVP votes and Defensive Player of the Year honors with the Orlando Magic. As Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe discussed in a recent episode of "The BS Report," Dwight looked like the third-most athletic big man on the floor that night, behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Of course, just about any player in the league, regardless of size, would finish third behind those two in any competition involving running and jumping. Griffin and Jordan may well constitute the most athletic front line in the NBA today, if not one of the most athletic of all time. (Which is to say nothing of their collective skill, discipline or their free-throw shooting, all of which leave much to be desired.)
That being said, when D12 was at his peak, there was nobody at or near his size who could hang with him athletically. Howard's sheer physical dominance, when combined with an intelligent approach on the defensive end, set him apart from all other bigs.
Simply put, Howard was the best center and most impactful defensive player in the NBA because he could cover so much ground. He could blow up a pick-and-roll on one side of the floor, challenge a shot on the other and recover into the paint to either grab a rebound or contest a second opportunity, all in the same possession.
It didn't matter that, at 6'11", Howard was closer in height to LeBron James than he was to Shaquille O'Neal. It didn't matter that the perimeter defenders around Dwight were subpar, to the extent that the Magic were better off funneling all of the action into the middle for their superstar center to clean up. It didn't matter that Howard's offensive game was frustratingly primitive in appearance, with only a few awkward spin moves and the occasional drop-step to show for his low-post repertoire.
None of that could keep Howard from being one of the two or three best players in the NBA when last we saw him at his peak. Back then (i.e. between 2008 and 2011'ish), he was turning in 20-15 efforts every night, with enough shot blocks and alterations to not only challenge for the league lead statistically, but also strike fear into the hearts of those who dared to venture down the lane while he lurked.
That Dwight was good enough to carry a so-so squad up to and over the 50-win plateau every year. That Dwight was good enough to lift the Magic to the Eastern Conference crown in 2009, get them back to the conference finals in 2010, and establish himself as (arguably) the player most deserving of the MVP—ahead of Derrick Rose and James—in 2011.
Such once-in-a-generation dominance was hardly ever on display from Howard as a Laker and, so far, it still isn't from him as a Rocket, even though he's clearly better off now than he was when the 2012-13 season came to a close.
The old Dwight wouldn't have had his shot sent back as emphatically or as easily as was this one by Griffin in L.A.:
The old Dwight wouldn't be anchoring a defense that ranks 17th in points allowed per possession or allowed one team to score 137 points with ease, as the Clips did on the first Monday of the young season. The old Dwight wouldn't surrender quite so many unimpeded parades to the rim—even from crafty slashers like Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford—regardless of how lackadaisical the combined defensive efforts of James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin on the perimeter have been.
You know what the old Dwight would do, though? He'd bark at his teammates after every bad pass, rather than implore them to keep trying. He'd give guys the stink eye for missed assignments, rather than offer helpful advice. He'd whine and complain about having to cover for the mistakes of others, rather than cop to the fact that, as the leader of this squad, it's on him to make his teammates better, not the other way around.
In that respect, the old Dwight is alive and well and will certainly be if/when the Rockets run into a rough patch this season. His body language and overall demeanor during games is as abysmal as ever, unbecoming of a player of his stature. As Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher noted, he's still goofing around during warmups, with little to show on the court for the hours of work he put in with Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer.
But, again, it's still way too early to come to any sweeping conclusions about what kind of player Howard is now and, in turn, what kind of team the Rockets will be. Howard and Houston have five-and-a-half months to feel each other out before the playoffs roll around—not to mention another three years after that during which Dwight will be under contract. Chances are, the Rockets defense will improve with the return of Patrick Beverley and as Dwight settles into a more complete understanding of his teammates' strengths, weaknesses and general tendencies on that end.
Already, Houston's defense looks better than the one of which Howard was a part in L.A., with plenty of credit due to Dwight's greater sense of determination and activity, along with his vastly improved health (both physically and mentally).
Dwight Howard, though, has a long way to go on his own before he can so much as sniff what he was, as a singularly destructive force, during his heyday in Orlando. How close and how soon he gets there may well dictate when (or if) the Rockets are able to separate themselves from the pack in the Western Conference and compete for the franchise's first NBA championship since the mid-'90s.
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