With the exception of Howard and lockdown point guard Patrick Beverley, the thinking went, Houston’s D—both the schemes and the people charged with executing them—was doomed to wilt in the playoff pressure cooker.
But over the last few months, the Rockets have quietly emerged as one of the most balanced two-way teams in the league—an offensive juggernaut that can both dictate the terms of engagement and string together enough stops to put itself in a position to win.
Consider: From Oct. 31 to Dec. 31, Houston logged a fourth-quarter offensive efficiency of 108.2 and a defensive efficiency of 112.3.
Since then, the Rockets are registering an offensive efficiency of 100.8 and a defensive efficiency of 98.4—sixth-best in the NBA—in the final frame.
That’s precisely the kind of development you want to see heading into the playoffs, when the game slows down and possessions become more valuable.
Rob Mahoney, writing at Sports Illustrated’s Point Forward blog, took a deep dive into just how drastic Houston’s turnaround has been:
Once reframed in that light, the Rockets are ninth in defense this season and sixth since Jan. 1—a stark difference from Houston’s No. 19 ranking in points allowed per game. The Rockets’ contagious style encourages opponents to fuel the game’s pace, but Houston has managed to keep things in check by playing the best transition defense in the league, according to Synergy Sports.
The flipside, however, is just as important: Houston has charted a league-worst fourth-quarter team turnover percentage (20.1) and is tied for the highest turnover rate (16.7 percent) with the Philadelphia 76ers, the team with the second-worst record in the NBA.
You do that in the playoffs, you’ll be hitting the golf links by mid-May.
At the same time, what goes on in the other three quarters—where the Rockets offense has been more like itself—also matters.
To wit: The offense ranks fifth in the NBA in overall efficiency (108.0), third in overall true-shooting percentage (57.1 percent) and fourth in total team rebounding percentage (52 percent), making them the only team in the league to register in the top five of all three categories.
So it might be time to acknowledge that James Harden was right when, during an interview the Houston Chronicle’s Jenny Creech, he hinted that the addition of Howard had the potential to put the Rockets over the top.
We did some good things last year, and I think adding Dwight really makes us contenders for a title. I know it will take a lot of hard work, but we have a lot to work with.
That Harden should have welcomed the addition of the league’s premier center was all but guaranteed.
What wasn’t guaranteed, however, was what kind of Dwight Howard the Rockets were getting.
Was it the athletic force of nature that seemed to single-handedly compel the Orlando Magic to a trip to the Finals in 2009, a guy who finished with a top-10 player efficiency rating for four straight seasons from 2009 to 20012?
Or was it the mercurial, immature man-child with lingering, somewhat-alarming back issues who—by dint of an almost incredible disinterestedness and aloofness—earned himself a permanent place on the Los Angeles Lakers’ top 10 all-time villains list?
Howard may never reach the athletic or productive apex of a few seasons ago, but for what the Rockets are looking for, this kind of statistical recovery has been the finest kind of found money:
With the drama of Howard’s Tinseltown tumult now squarely in the rearview mirror, more has come to light about how bad a fit L.A. was and how comparatively simpatico Houston’s jovial center has found his new surroundings.
Shams Charania of RealGM dove headlong into this very topic back in February:
Howard never wanted to step on the toes of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash and any Los Angeles Laker, but he’s never one to lead from the shadows, either. There, Howard was simply one of the guys…The Rockets’ hierarchy understood opposing suitors had tried to tarnish elements of Daryl Morey’s roster, and countered with reason no one will match the closeness of this group, with vows a franchise star’s run of the organization starts with no insecurities or differences within his own locker room.
With Harden and Howard, the Rockets have a pair of complementary stars nearly unrivaled in their collective skill set, with the former’s effortless offensive verve and the latter’s resurgent defensive genius providing the polar north and south of a team charting an evermore confident course.
Both were brought aboard as classic examples of high risk, high reward. Both have worked to dispel the demons of one-dimensionality. Both are flawed superstars doomed to future inclusion in their era’s second breath.
And the way the Rockets are playing now, both have a chance to be the ones laughing all the way to a banner.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 3, unless otherwise noted.
Jim Cavan is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.