Howard, who has been dealing with ankle inflammation for a couple of weeks, hasn't played since March 27, and we still don't know when the All-Star center will be making his return. Now, the Rockets are stuck in limbo, heading into the playoffs having to reconfigure plenty of what they know about defense.
Houston ranks 11th in points allowed per 100 possessions, and most of that has to do with Howard. And without him, the Rockets are in a much more troubling predicament.
There is an inherent problem in Houston's model: It doesn't really have perimeter defenders. And now, with Patrick Beverley sidelined as well, the Rockets have even more issues.
Who is supposed to defend on the wings for this team?
Jeremy Lin? James Harden? Omri Casspi? Francisco Garcia?
There isn't anyone there who can truly defend dominant perimeter players. Or even just the ones who are above average. So the Rockets are left with Chandler Parsons as their best stopper on the wing, and that's not really what you want to see in a championship-contending team.
In actuality, isn't Dwight Howard just the Rockets' best perimeter defender? After all, he's the one who makes everything they do on defense possible.
Look at the 2008-09 Orlando Magic team that went all the way to the NBA Finals. That squad didn't have many defenders out on the perimeter either, but it had Dwight. And that made everything easier.
Howard cleaned up everything.
He blew up pick-and-rolls. He helped whenever a ball-handler would drive by a slow-footed Magic player. He completely controlled the defense, propelling Orlando to the first-ranked D in the league that season.
Current Dwight isn't 2009 Dwight. They're different people at this point.
Howard isn't quite as quick. He's just a smidgen less athletic. And his defense is a little bit worse because of that.
In 2009, Howard was indisputably a top-three player. Now, that's no longer the case. But Dwight can still carry a defense.
Protect the rim, deter shots and cut off passing lanes when ball-handlers penetrate. Howard stays back, hangs around the paint, and does his job comfortably. And there may not be anyone else in the league who pulls it off as well as him.
That's not a knock on any of those three centers. Hibbert or Noah could win Defensive Player of the Year, and no reasonable person would ever have a problem with that selection. But the downfall of Howard says more about the way basketball fans let reputation affect their opinions than it does about Dwight's actual on-court play.
It's a small sample size, but there's a reason the Rockets have a 108.3 defensive efficiency—22nd in the league—since Howard last played March 27. It's no coincidence the Rockets allow 1.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when Howard is on the floor, even though Dwight lineups usually go up against starters.
You can break it down pretty simply, actually: Dwight Howard is a good defender so he makes the Rockets defense good, too.
Asik can ball, but even when he's performing at his peak level (like Sunday, when he went for 18 points and 23 rebounds), the Rockets still can't be as effective as they are with Howard (also like Sunday, when the Denver Nuggets dropped 117 points on them in regulation).
Say what you will about what Harden means to the Rockets, but Howard is the man who makes this team tick. And that's just because Harden doesn't guard. Seriously, he doesn't seem to have any interest in doing so.
(Disclaimer: Harden has actually played better defense over the past few weeks. Whether that's because he's playing harder as his team fights for home-court advantage or because of some fluke, who knows? But, though his defense hasn't been anywhere close to average, Harden has, at the very least, started to show some effort on the defensive end of late.)
Usually Harden gets lost off the ball. He doesn't find the right spots on the floor. He doesn't communicate, and he ends up making so many low-effort plays.
Oh, you mean like these ones?
And in the end, that's the problem with the Rockets. Think of all the Western Conference perimeter-oriented players they wouldn't be able to man in the playoffs.
Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. Kawhi Leonard. Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili. Chris Paul. J.J. Redick. Jamal Crawford. Wesley Matthews. Damian Lillard. Nicolas Batum. Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson. Andre Iguodala. Dirk Nowitzki. Monta Ellis. Goran Dragic. Eric Bledsoe. Gerald Green.
Can I stop now?
So is Parsons going to stop dribble penetration from all those guys? Is he going to chase shooters around screens and actually stop them consistently? Probably not.
Parsons isn't a bad defender, but that's not the issue here. It's that he's the best remaining perimeter stopper on the roster. And when you compare him to other team's "best perimeter defenders," you start to run into problems.
The Rockets can't prevent points in the same fashion without Howard. Bleacher Report's Michael Pina explains part of why that occurs.
Howard’s 1.8 blocks per game are seventh highest in the league, but he’s scaled back on the hunt. Whenever Howard leaves his man to contest a shot, his own man becomes free to grab an offensive rebound.
Howard can’t do everything, and with less experienced players such as Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas missing rotations down to cover Howard’s assignment, there are countless instances where he’ll instead opt for proper rebounding position.
The Beverley injury just hurts so much. He was the guy who could legitimately shut down a Parker or a Lillard. But if he's not there, and Howard is either absent or not 100 percent, the entire Rockets defense changes.
Let's not slight Omer Asik, who has become one of the better defensive centers in the NBA. But he's not Howard, and the Rockets' scheme with Asik on the floor will tell you they agree.
How far in the playoffs can the Rockets go without Howard at 100 percent?
With a healthy Howard, the Rockets let their center control the defense. They force everything to the middle of the floor, and allow Dwight to be Dwight.
Now, with Asik anchoring the D, the Rockets' identity has switched. They're not successfully funneling opponents to the middle anymore. They can't.
Instead, Asik has to be more assertive. He's more about stopping penetration at the source and less about waiting for a ball-handler to come to the middle and deterring shots once the opportunity comes.
He'll hedge more than Howard. He'll move more. And that forces every other Rocket to make strategic adjustments you wouldn't usually see teams commit in April.
It's so hard for a team to change its defensive mentality in the middle of the season. It's even more difficult to do that at the end of the year. But this is what the Rockets have to do when they shift from a Howard-anchored defense to an Asik-controlled one.
Teams work all season establishing consistency on the defensive end. And that's more of what team defense is about than anything else, right? Executing the same plan over and over again. Getting so used to your teammates that you can almost telepathically know where and when to rotate.
Without Howard (and Beverley), the repetition isn't there. The team has to learn how to play differently. And even though the Rockets are winning, that's never a trait a championship contender wants to possess entering the postseason.
Asik is actually one of the better defensive centers in the NBA. But he's not Howard. Few are. And if the Rockets want to win the West, they have to make sure their best player is fully healthy entering the postseason.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.