It wasn't all that long ago that Dwight Howard was considered the consensus third- or fourth-best player in the NBA. His combination of pick-and-roll brilliance on both ends of the court was unmatched—one the league had not really seen since the early days of Shaquille O'Neal.
Couple that prodigious skill with his shot-blocking prowess, ability to shut down the opposition from the rim all the way out to the free-throw line, and an expanding array of post moves, and you had a dominant two-way force that many agreed could—maybe should—have won the MVP that eventually went to Derrick Rose in 2011.
And then the tide began to turn. Howard started getting all wishy-washy about his future in Orlando. There were trade demands, coach-firing demands, awkward press conferences, botched option clauses, and Skittles. Then, a trade to the Lakers and a subpar (by his standards) season in Los Angeles later, and all of a sudden, Howard was a mere laughingstock in the public consciousness.
He's been better on both ends of the floor in his first year in Houston.
It's likely due to the improving health of his back, the fact that he's far more comfortable in his new city than he ever was under the bright lights of L.A. and the fact that his new coach has indulged Howard's slightly misguided desire to be a post-up player far more often than Mike D'Antoni did.
It's more indulgence than he was afforded in his only season as a Laker, but it does seem as though his re-emergence as a possible top-five player has gone somewhat overlooked.
After missing six games and playing injured in many more last season, Howard has yet to miss a game for the Rockets and has been mostly healthy throughout this entire campaign. He's playing fewer minutes per game (34.2 this year, as opposed to 35.8 last year), yet he's scoring more points (18.9 to 17.1), snaring the same amount of rebounds (12.4) and dishing out more assists (1.8 to 1.4).
He's still in his usual place among the league leaders in fouls drawn and free-throw attempts per game. Only this year he's nudged his free-throw percentage back up into the mid-50s, nearly six percent higher than it was in either of the last two seasons.
The advanced stats paint just as nice a picture. His player efficiency rating (PER) has jumped 2.5 points; his true shooting percentage (TS%) is back in the .600 range; his individual offensive rating is back at 110 after sitting at 105 and 106 the last two seasons; and he's already notched more win shares (WS) in 2013-14 than he did during the 2012-13 season.
He's back comfortably in the top 20 in PER, TS%, defensive rating and win shares and in the top five in total rebounding percentage (TRB%—the percentage of available misses a player rebounds while on the court).
His defense, often a half-step or slower last season, has rebounded to the point where he's not totally unrecognizable as the all-court destructive force we were used to seeing in Orlando. This is not peak Howard, but it's a reasonable facsimile that has declined an expected amount with age and some wear and tear.
And as the Rockets have won 13 of 15 games since the beginning of February, Howard has turned on the afterburners even more.
In less than 35 minutes of playing time a night across those 15 games, Howard is averaging 21.2 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and nearly a steal and two blocks a game. He's done this while shooting 63.9 percent from the field and 62.2 percent from the line, the latter of which would be his highest mark since his rookie season.
If those numbers look familiar, it's because they bear a remarkable similarity to the 2010-11 numbers he put up in what many felt could have been an MVP season, once you adjust for minutes played.
His on-court/off-court impact on the Rockets since February 1 has been absurd.
In the 518 minutes Howard has seen the court since the start of February, Houston has outscored its opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, a number that would easily pace the league. In the 212 minutes the Rockets have played without him in that period of time, they've been outscored by 3.0 points per 100 possessions, a scoring margin on par with the lowly Sacramento Kings.
That 17.0-point positive swing is second on the team to only James Harden since the start of February and is a stark improvement on last year, when the Lakers were only 4.5 points better per 100 possessions with Howard on the court.
When we checked in with Howard and the Rockets in this space in early November, we noted the cramped spacing inherently dooming the Howard-Omer Asik frontcourt pairing, as well as his in-decline post-up game. Both of those issues have been remedied in the months since.
Terrence Jones' move into the starting lineup has done wonders for Houston as he provides much more space on the floor for Howard, Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin to maneuver around the court than Asik did, while still bringing a measure of defense and also injecting some more playmaking and versatility into the frontcourt.
Howard-Jones is Houston's fourth-most-used two-man combination this season, and the team has outscored its opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions in the minutes it's seen the floor, per NBA.com.
Howard's post-up game, meanwhile, has been somewhat revitalized. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Howard is shooting 45.9 percent (187-of-407) out of the post this season, and that number is 48.5 percent (48-of-99) since the start of February. Last year, he shot 44.4 percent out of the post.
He doesn't have quite the same quick-twitch first-step explosion he did a couple of years back, but good positioning combined with decisive moves and a soft touch has allowed him to get to his spots and put the ball in the net, even against some of the league's better post defenders, such as Robin Lopez and Roy Hibbert shown in the videos above.
He remains a ruthlessly efficient pick-and-roll force and an excellent cutter when he puts his mind and his body to it, an above-the-rim dynamo with athleticism that can be matched by only a handful of players in the league. He's shooting 73 percent as a roll man in pick-and-rolls this season, according to Synergy, and many would undoubtedly agree he's still not being used in that manner often enough.
Each of his teammates has seemingly gotten better at tossing him lob passes out of pick-and-rolls as the season has gone along, with Parsons showing the most improvement from the beginning of the season to now. It's a shame Howard is finishing only one shot per game out of the pick-and-roll on average.
Even while under-utilizing what is undoubtedly his best offensive asset—and one of the league's best, at that; Howard is fourth in the NBA in points per play (PPP) as a roll man with 1.32, according to Synergy—he's still much-improved from the player we saw last season.
He has the Rockets sitting in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, despite playing noted sieves like Harden, Lin and even Parsons heavy minutes. With Howard on the court, Houston's defensive rating is 101.4, which would sit between the Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Bobcats as the seventh-best defense in the league, per NBA.com.
A top-10 offense and a top-10 defense is usually a pretty good sign of a contender, and the Rockets have both right now. James Harden is their scoring superstar, but Dwight Howard's the one holding things together on the opposite end, and his improved health and better offensive numbers are nothing to sneeze at, either. He's back to being a dominant two-way force.
Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.