Dwight Howard was brought to the Houston Rockets with the expectation that he'd help bring Clutch City back to title contention this season, after signing a four-year deal with the team. But has he met his expectations thus far?
The short, simple answer is a resounding yes. The Rockets rode a six-game winning streak into the break for an overall record of 36-17, the third seed in the daunting Western Conference and the fifth best record in the NBA. Howard’s presence has been an unmistakably huge factor in Houston’s upgrade from fringe playoff team to frightening heavyweight fighter.
Howard’s defense, rebounding and the spacing he gives his team’s offense are obvious evidence of his worth. "Howard," writes Jason Friedman of Rockets.com, "is focused on finding new ways, or simply mastering old ones, to free up even more space."
Less tangible, but just as important, though, has been the center’s psychological renaissance. He’s rededicated himself to the game of basketball, and has actually been a source of focus for his young teammates when many thought he might cause them distractions.
“Don’t let anyone steal your joy,” Howard tells the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen; this is his mantra. After traversing a rocky road with the Los Angeles Lakers, skeptics wondered if Howard could bounce back from the damage his reputation suffered.
By all accounts, the skeptics have been proven wrong. Howard’s Player Efficiency Rating has climbed 21.7—a number lower than that in his best years with the Orlando Magic, but higher than it was at any point in L.A. And Howard looks poised to take his game to newer heights yet, as he’s averaged a towering 25.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.75 steals over his last four games.
As the season goes on and the Rockets gel, Howard’s role grows and his impact on games becomes larger. He’s been patient and calm enough to defer to James Harden while his game comes to him in this new system, and now it’s coming to him in spades. As he gets to know his teammates more and more, he’s finding his spots and dominating them.
His health has played a major role. Plagued by back issues both of the last two seasons, Howard is finally becoming comfortable enough with his body again to show what has historically separated him from the league’s big men. He’s a track athlete in a giant’s body, lithe enough to take the NBA’s other centers and power forwards off the dribble or to simply out-run and out-jump them.
Many feared that Howard’s athletic advantage was a bit behind him, and that he’d have to start learning a more nuanced language of post-play and pick-and-roll strategy. Some of these calls were largely inspired by former Rocket great Hakeem Olajuwon, who Howard has worked with. And while Howard has expanded his court awareness, and much to his advantage, it’s also safe to say that he still holds a physical edge over just about every big man in the NBA. He just needed to heal a bit to reassure us.
The most optimistic of Rockets fans will forecast that Howard’s re-improving game has yet to plateau. As a perennial MVP candidate with the Magic, his PER was once at the astronomical digit of 26.1.
It would take a number of things for Howard to return to such effectiveness. Chief among them is a team system that’s more centered around him, with actions designed to give him the most optimal opportunities to exploit his countless mismatches.
But how the Rockets work Howard in more over time is something he probably wonders himself, as the team has largely stuck to its running and gunning ways, waving their challenge flag defiantly toward any team who thinks they can outscore them.
A more bolted down style in Houston would put on greater display what Howard is still capable of on the defensive end, which is plenty. He's still fleet of foot enough to chase men out of the paint, but return in time to help protect the rim.
As the game slows down in the ramp up to the playoffs, however, the Rockets’ hand will be forced, and it will be Howard’s half-court supremacy that’s tested most of all.
When the pressure is on all over again, how will the big man respond? Will he continue to meet expectations?