Dwight Howard's grin never left, but the joy behind it was gone. Now they've both returned.
The Houston Rockets gave him more than he could have ever imagined: an All-Star running mate to handle the heaviest scoring load, a horde of shooters to balance the floor and a roster full of track stars to complement Howard's physical gifts.
It didn't take long for the man formerly known as "Superman" to get called in for his cape-fitting and the Rockets to take off.
Whether due to the sins of his past or those of his coach, Kevin McHale (see: failed twin towers experiment), Howard was left out of the All-Star Game starting lineup for the first time since his initial trip in 2007.
Perhaps spurred by the snub (or simply more comfortable in his new surroundings), he's spent his last 15 games making sure the All-NBA voters won't make that same mistake, averaging 22 points on 62.6 percent shooting, 12.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 34.8 minutes over that stretch.
For reference, only two players in the three-point era (1979-80 to present) have averaged at least 20 points on 60 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for a season: Shaquille O'Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Howard's entire 2013-14 campaign isn't quite that impressive, but it's better than any of his fellow centers have put together.
Under the traditional lens, he's a premier difference-maker. He's sitting third in field-goal percentage (59.0), fourth in rebounding (12.5), tied for eighth in blocks (1.8) and tied for 22nd in scoring (19.0).
From an advanced-statistical view, he's an efficient scorer and stonewall defender. He's tied for sixth in effective field-goal percentage (59.2), 15th in player efficiency rating (22.1), tied at No. 4 in rebounding percentage (20.4) and seventh in defensive win shares (3.7).
The Rockets should be offensive specialists, the type of team that holds nightly races to 100 points. With James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons on the wing, Houston's perimeter is littered with sieves.
Yet this is the ninth-stingiest defense in the league (102.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). It's the sixth-most effective unit against pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.76 points per possession), sixth-toughest group against cutters (1.15) and fourth-best unit against post-up scorers (0.80), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
How has Houston survived having so many defensive holes? Try looking at its mountain in the middle.
He's made the gritty plays that propelled him to three straight Defensive Player of the Year Awards (2009-11), but has also shown a willingness to dish out the tough love his teammates have needed to hear:
A problem child in the court of public opinion, the only problems he's causing at this point belongs to the opposition.
Improving Production on the Low Block
In head coach Kevin McHale and mentor Hakeem Olajuwon, Howard inherited two of the finest teachers for interior offense. That's like taking painting lessons from Pablo Picasso, or getting singing tips from Ray Charles.
Of course, there's an innate side to low-post proficiency that can't be taught.
The stat sheet shows Howard as a mediocre (or worse) post finisher. He's converted his post-up plays at a rate of 0.76 points per possession, slotting him 103rd in the category, via Synergy Sports.
While his post production leaves something to be desired, you can see his comfort level near the basket improving.
As Michael Pina of Red94.net noted, Howard's movement on the low block shows his lessons taking effect:
His baseline drop step is ballet compared to last year’s rusty gate.
He’s powerful, too, turning either shoulder into a snow plow and clearing out whoever’s standing between him and the rim. This power is paired with coordinated explosion possessed by zero players his size. Howard’s first step is a thing of beauty, and he’s comfortable facing an opponent up on the wing, then attacking baseline.
That's an awful lot of praise for such a poor post player, isn't it?
Well, no, actually.
There's more to being a dominant interior presence than simply bullying an opponent near the basket. In fact, if you widen the lens, the numbers actually show one of the league's most productive players on "close" touches (defined by NBA.com's StatVU player-tracking data as a non-drive offensive chance that begins within 12 feet of the basket).
|Comparing Howard to the NBA's Most Active Big Men|
|Player||Close Touches per game||Pts per Half-Court Touch|
Howard's combination of strength and athleticism still goes unrivaled in this league. It's also a deadly mix that loses some of its effectiveness in plodding, back-to-the-basket opportunities.
When he puts that massive, forceful frame in motion, he becomes the definition of a matchup nightmare.
It sounds hyperbolic. The numbers say it isn't, though.
As a pick-and-roll screener, Howard is the league's third-most effective scorer (1.34 points per possession on 73.3 percent shooting), via Synergy Sports. He's an even more dominant force as an off-ball cutter (1.66 on 88.9) or when he's out in transition (1.48 on 90.9).
He's the ultimate offensive safety valve. If nothing else is working, his teammates know they can throw the ball up anywhere near the rim and he'll find a way to hammer it home.
That hasn't always been the case in recent seasons.
Plagued by a bad back, some wondered if his loss of athleticism might be permanent.
There's a mountain of video evidence to debunk that myth. And enough aerial assaults to make Howard himself a believer in his bounce.
"I'm just happy with where I am today," he said in late February, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "It's going to get a lot better. I'm looking forward to that."
That sentiment isn't shared by a single soul outside of the Rockets fanbase. The hoops world understands just how high a healthy Howard can lift Houston's ceiling.
Bringing Championship Hopes (and Credentials) to Houston
Houston's meteoric rise (21-6 since Jan. 1) should surprise no one. Howard has done more with less before (see: the Orlando Magic's run to the 2009 NBA Finals).
The Rockets, understandably, needed some time to jell.
Harden needed to learn how to find his driving lanes with Howard occupying the same real estate he was trying to attack. Parsons had to fit his Swiss Army knife skills alongside a pair of superstars. McHale mistakenly tried to go big in a downsizing league before Terrence Jones blossomed into the athletic 4 Howard needed at his side.
Now that everything has fallen into place, Houston has started its climb up the NBA ladder. Howard was the boost to help the Rockets begin their ascent.
"When guys play with Howard, they benefit from the attention he draws on offense and his ability to cover up their mistakes on defense," Jonathan Tjarks of RealGM.com wrote. "The centerpiece of Houston's offense and defense, he makes his teammates better on both sides of the ball, the mark of a true superstar."
Since Jan. 28, the Rockets have held the league's fourth offensive rating (110.5) and 11th defensive mark (102.1). Their net rating of plus-8.4 points per 100 possessions during that stretch is second-highest in the league.
As Howard's confidence has grown, so, too, has Houston's championship potential.
With that "S" once again etched across his chest, the best center in basketball has reclaimed his spot among the NBA elites—and taken the Rockets with him.