With Howard alongside Harden, the Rockets are title contenders capable of making a legitimate championship push. Without him, they're a lot like the Rockets team from last season: far from great.
For five of the last seven games, they've been without him as he tends to a sore left ankle. Attention must be paid to their 3-2 record during that time. Three straight wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz came without him, but none of those teams are an actual test. If the playoffs started today, not a single one of those squads would be dancing.
Two losses, of course, isn't a large enough sample size to draw edgy conclusions. The Rockets are not a terrible basketball team tracking toward implosion. But they are a title-contending clique that's always needed Howard.
The last few games are merely a reminder that's not going to change.
Part of what makes the Rockets so dangerous is their balancing act.
Last year's one-sided cadre is this season's double-ended junkie. According to NBA.com (subscription required), the Rockets rank 10th in defensive efficiency, up from 16th last season. That's in addition to maintaining a potent and fast-paced offensive attack. The Rockets once again check in at sixth in offensive efficiency and are fifth in possessions used per 48 minutes.
Sustaining this level of play is imperative—especially on the defensive end. Only one team since 1996—2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers—has won a championship while finishing outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency.
Entering the title conversation has demanded defensive reformation, something Howard's arrival has quarterbacked. Without him, though, the Rockets aren't a good defensive team. Over their last two games, they've been even worse than bad.
|The Rockets...||Off. Rtg.||Off. Rank (equivalent)||Def. Rtg.||Def. Rank|
|Last 2 Games||99.0||28||111.9||30|
In general, the Rockets are better on both ends of the floor with Howard. But the difference without him has been staggering in their last two losses.
Overreacting to two losses is, again, shortsighted and impulsive. There's no burying the Rockets using only those two games.
What if those two games became five, though? Better yet, what if those two games became two playoff games?
The Rockets aren't built to succeed without Howard. Their dynamic—specifically on the defensive end—is fragile, predicated on Howard being healthy and able to play.
Even with him, they have their flaws. They rank 18th in points allowed in the paint per game (43.4), according to TeamRankings.com, and 21st in pick-and-roll defense on roll men, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Howard is the one player they cannot lose on that end of floor.
That is, unless they can adequately replace him.
Which they can't.
Omer Asik to the Rescue...Or Not
Been here, seen this. And it's not good enough.
Omer Asik, when healthy and not suffering from trade rumor-itis, can be a valuable piece to Houston's puzzle. Against the Nets, he went for 12 points, a career-high 23 rebounds and two blocks as the Rockets' lone line of defense.
Problem is, he doesn't have the same impact as Howard. He cannot shift the outcome on one side of the floor himself. When the Rockets do their switch-until-Asik-winds-up-on-ball thing, it's not as pretty as when they do the same with Howard.
They're equally vulnerable on the offensive end too, where the flat-footed Asik has neither the hands nor mobility to duplicate Howard's production. Where Howard is explosive and (somewhat) polished, Asik is clumsy and uncoordinated.
Really, the numbers speak for themselves:
|Rockets With...||Off. Rtg.||Off. Rank||Def. Rtg.||Def. Rank|
Though the Rockets' defensive rating this season is better with Asik on the floor, predominantly playing against second units help, hence the inclusion of his 2012-13 impact when he was the full-time starter.
At best, one could say Asik is a lateral defensive move. There's no denying his inferiority on the offensive end, though, which is problematic considering that's the Rockets' bread and butter.
There's also the matter of his performance alongside Harden, the team's best player and franchise cornerstone.
Since Asik isn't as active on the offensive end, even when it comes to setting screens, additional pressure is put on Harden. When Howard's on the floor—though Harden's shooting percentages are worse—he's typically given more room to operate.
Neither Howard nor Asik is a low-post scoring machine. Both tend to start their offensive sets at bad angles and way, way (way) too far outside the paint. Howard himself is guilty of facing up opponents, trying to take them off the dribble when his handles are less than impressive.
But at least Howard draws double-teams. Not only does Asik struggle more when he's tasked with creating for himself, he's never going command double coverage.
Post-up sets featuring the 27-year-old usually look something like this:
Howard, meanwhile, often finds himself surrounded by two or three defenders...like this:
In the scheme of everything, this matters for Harden, whose defensive display also suffers alongside Asik—as if that were even possible—because Howard is more adept at cleaning up his messes and making the most of miscues.
|Harden...||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
|With Asik 2012-13||107.2||101.3||5.9|
|With Asik 2013-14||104.9||104.8||0.1|
|With Howard 2013-14||110.4||101.8||8.6|
Even if you're resigned to Houston frequently playing swiss cheese defense with Harden on the floor, the overall difference is obvious. Asik may be the NBA's best backup center, but he remains unfit to fill the two-way holes Howard's absence creates.
Relax. In a way, this is all a good thing.
If nothing else, the Rockets' recent and brief struggles are a reminder of why Howard was brought to Houston in the first place. They weren't good enough without him. Asik can be the starting center on a contending team, just not the Rockets.
Coach Kevin McHale's crew needs a star jumping center. Someone who can offset perimeter defensive struggles by provocatively patrolling the paint and do more than score off putbacks on the offensive end. They have that in Howard.
Losses only become unnerving later on, in the playoffs, when one game, one mistake changes everything. The Rockets are already unsure of how long Patrick Beverley, resident perimeter pest, will be out. Similar uncertainty with Howard is something they cannot afford.
How far in the playoffs can Houston go with a dominant Howard?
Just as much as they need Harden, the Rockets need Howard. Not Asik or any other substitute.
"There was more fluid in there the next time I saw the doctor," Howard told reporters, via Jonathan Feigen of Ultimate Rockets. "It was best I get the fluid out and just rest. I’m not worried."
As long as Howard isn't worried, the Rockets are free to assume they'll have him at full strength moving forward. And as long as they have him—a dominant him—they're going to be just fine.