How Dwight Howard Is Improving with the Houston Rockets

John Wilmes@@johnwilmesNBAContributor IDecember 19, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 18:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets shoots against the Chicago Bulls on December 18, 2013 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Dwight Howard’s max-level contract with the Houston Rockets came on the heels of one of his lesser seasons as a pro in recent memory, with the dysfunctional Los Angeles Lakers.

There was some room for doubt over whether he’d be close to the superstar he became with the Orlando Magic—but so far, those fears have been unfounded. Howard has shown great improvement from his 2012-13 self.

This uptick in quality begins with Howard’s deference. Questions of whether he could be humble enough to cede the lane and offensive touches to fellow superstar James Harden—and even Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and the rest of Houston’s slew of perimeter assassins—seem to have been answered. Houston is consistently near the top of the league in offensive production, and they're only getting better as Howard chisels his role within their system.

His place in the offense has become increasingly synergistic. He has needed the ball on post-ups less and less and is finding lots of easy baskets by rolling to the rim. He's also benefiting from the various misdirections and double-teams caused by Harden. These two are becoming a legit two-headed monster. The below play is a perfect illustration of how Howard’s meshing into his new team's attack is paying dividends offensively.

Perhaps more important is how Dwight is adjusting to the full-court style that the Rockets stress. Maximizing easy shots and three-pointers by jumping ahead of the defense is a huge part of the edge their team holds. A mobile, rebound-hoarding Howard who looks and passes down the court fluently—and runs down it, too—is not something we’ve yet seen consistently. But when we have, it’s been a terrifying thing for Houston’s Western Conference competitors.

Defensively, the Rockets have gotten about what they expected from Howard. He puts a lid on whatever man he’s guarding and also affects a ton of shots near the rim with his award-winning help defense.

But the benefits of D12’s presence on that end of the floor won't be fully reaped until the game slows down in the playoffs. That's when Howard will be faced with the duty of guarding post masterminds like Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, as well as being the last line of defense against more nuanced team actions.

Howard is also making a concerted effort to keep his personality from interfering with the team’s progress. He appears calmer and more wisely guarded than he has in years when doing interviews—finally learning the fine skill of ignoring and deflecting reporters’ controversy bait—and his body language with his teammates looks better every game. He’s more communicative, open, warm.

This is a Howard who’s been through the ring of fire in Los Angeles and is, as a result of his messy experience there, now born again as a basketball player. He’s focused on improving his game on a personal and team level in a way we haven’t seen in a long time—and it’s refreshing. He’s even bumped his all-important free-throw percentage up to 56—it floated near a dreadful 49 over his past two seasons—and on select nights even makes all of his attempts from the line.

The Rockets, ultimately, will go as far as Howard and Harden can take them. Howard’s experience with more methodical, half-court stylings will be hugely advantageous to the team in the postseason. But so will all of the movements and machinations he’s learning and fine-tuning with his new team. Just how much he continues to develop as a Rocket will determine how many playoff rounds they get through.