The 28-year-old needed a little time to find his bearings in H-Town. But he's found them of late, along with lofty point totals, gobs of rebounds and even some success at the charity stripe.
The basketball world has seen this dominant Dwight before. That's why everyone's understandably shaking as the seven-time All-Star single-handedly raises the Rockets' ceiling.
It's a category Howard never should have left. Not with his combination of size (6'11", 240 pounds), strength and athleticism.
Yet during the last few nightmarish seasons—an uncomfortably lengthy exit from the Orlando Magic and a horrendous one-year run with the Los Angeles Lakers—it was impossible to keep him there. Whether an ill-fitting system or Howard's stubborn determination to assert himself on the low block was to blame, his numbers no longer warranted elite status.
But something has clicked in Houston. It makes that word "elite" not seem exclusive enough to describe his talent:
His stat sheet carries a familiar feeling of power. We've seen this type of production from him before and the far-reaching effects it can have on his team (see: the 20.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks he averaged while carrying the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals).
But Howard's put together a new brand of brilliance here lately. Now that a lot of his supporting cast is in the training room, he's bitten off bigger chunks of the box score—and kept asking for more.
Over his last 10 games, Howard has taken a page out of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch's book and gone full-on beast mode.
During that stretch, he's rolled out a steady stream of All-NBA numbers: 22.6 points on 64.1 percent shooting, 15.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals. Stretch those figures across the whole season, and he'd be leading the league in rebounding and sitting second in field-goal percentage, sixth in blocks and eighth in scoring.
Offensively, he's hitting on all cylinders from all angles of the court.
He's an explosive finisher going to the basket, and the Rockets are finding different ways to maximize that strength. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he holds top-20 scoring ranks as a pick-and-roll man (1.16 points per possession, 15th), an off-ball cutter (1.65, second) and an offensive rebounder (1.21, ninth).
But those Dream School sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon aren't going to waste, either.
He's playing the low post with a purpose. If defenses don't bring help, he's making decisive scoring moves before they can change their minds. When he gets support, he's locating his open teammates (3.5 assists over his last four games).
"Pick-and-roll, he's great," Chandler Parsons said, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "Post-ups, he's great. Passing, he's a really willing and good passer out of the post...He's really been dominating every center that's tried to guard him."
The league is now in the same place it used to be with Howard. It's trying to limit the damage he's doing; stopping him is no longer an option.
Official Entry in the Championship Race
Houston fielded a championship roster over the offseason, but the title held true more in name than in reality.
That's not the case now.
Howard's the same intimidating presence he was before, not the damaged goods some worried that he had become. James Harden and Parsons are proving more than capable of maintaining their production alongside Houston's new man in the middle. Terrence Jones has done a masterful job as an athletic stretch 4 and two-way contributor.
And the Rockets can still fill another need when they find the right trade package for disgruntled reserve Omer Asik.
Maybe that's a bigger body down low that can take on the defensive assignments that Jones can't handle. Perhaps it's a stopper to close the floodgates that can form on the perimeter.
That player (or players) will be important in Houston's race to the podium. But it's a complementary piece alongside the Howard-Harden-Parsons trio that looks every bit as good as advertised.
With Howard finding his old form, he itches such a tremendous scratch that this team has.
For as potent as this offense is (107.7 points per 100 possessions, third overall), it can grow stagnant if the big man isn't holding his own near the basket. There's only so many times Houston can go to the Harden isolation well, particularly if the officials choose to swallow their whistles.
Howard can be the closer this team so desperately needs. Right now, the Rockets need to strike first because their effectiveness flutters over the course of the full 48 minutes, via NBA.com (subscription required).
It's hard to close out a team with jumpers. Not only is the offensive margin for error thin, but the defense is also put under the gun as errant shots become long rebounds, which then turn into transition opportunities.
Howard is the player to control Houston's pace. He gives them a potent half-court weapon, both for his low-post work and his off-ball movement. He can collapse a defense by himself, turning those forced perimeter shots into wide-open looks.
He's also starting to punish teams for sending him to the foul line. It's still a better bet than letting him finish at the rim (he's shooting just 56.5 percent at the stripe on the season), but that Hack-a-Dwight ploy isn't the weapon it once was. He's converted 60.9 percent of his free throws over his last 20 games, a conversion rate he hasn't enjoyed since his rookie season (67.1).
|Diminishing Returns: Houston's In-Game Splits|
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This isn't a unique trait to Howard, but the more involved he is at the offensive end, the more havoc he'll wreak at the opposite side. Houston has more sieves than a typical contender, but Superman can plug defensive gaps that mere mortals cannot.
This is the Howard that the Rockets rolled out the red carpet for this summer. A shot-blocking, glass-eating, point-producing superstar who can carry this team to the championship stage.
He is the same center who terrorized NBA bigs for so long in Orlando. He might look like the league's happiest superstar, but that smile can be deceiving.
He's a cold-blooded assassin. He's the reason that seven-foot giants are now looking over their shoulders and avoiding dark alleys at all costs.
Superman is back. And that's every bit as scary as it sounds for the rest of the basketball world.
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