Howard had a 27.4 player efficiency rating over the Rockets’ six playoff contests—good for third-best in the league over the second season. His improved play on the block had a ton to do with this number.
Howard’s offense has long been criticized for an over-reliance on his superior (but visibly fading) athleticism. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, though, he took to the lane and scored in ways more deft, graceful and timeless than perhaps we’d ever seen from the big man.
One stretch, in particular, stands out. Howard was a marvel in the first half of Game 2 against Portland, racking up 32 points in the game on Robin Lopez. He worked the baseline and the center of the lane, redirecting Lopez—one of the league’s better big-man defenders—with extremely nimble footwork. Dare I say that Howard looked "Olajuwonesque"?
It finally seemed like no coincidence that Howard was taking lessons from the former Rockets great. D12 can no longer simply turn around and dunk over nearly any defender like he used to, and Hakeem Olajuwon and coach Kevin McHale have clearly helped him refine his maneuvers. He’s not an overwhelming force anymore, but with improved floor vision, Howard can still be a dominant player down low.
He's now able to create space with "Dream Shake" body fakes and subtle spins moves. He also has increased touch on short, contested hook shots and layups and he still has the foot speed to simply turn the corner on his defender if he seizes the daylight they give him. Howard's recognition of these moments has increased considerably as well.
The concern for Rockets fans, of course, is whether Howard can be consistently capable of such displays in the post. In the playoffs, Howard was. But post play is not the same monster it was in Olajuwon’s 1990s or McHale’s 1980s. Defensive rules have evolved to allow teams to pack the paint, and repeatedly giving the ball to Howard is bound to give Houston some strategic disadvantages.
Perhaps most important among the downsides is that Howard’s actions in the post are not the best option for his team’s offense as a whole. When the Rockets isolate Howard down low and feed him the ball, it leads to a lot of standing and watching for a group that’s at its best when it's more kinetic. Per NBA Reddit:
[T]he Rockets' offense is significantly better than their opponents' in every type of play (0.96 [points per possession] vs 0.87), except post-ups and isolations (0.78 vs 0.83). Unfortunately, these types of plays combine for 22% of their possessions.
Integrating Howard’s improving awareness of the paint into a larger offensive system will be a key challenge facing the Rockets in the 2014-15 season.
They’ve got a healthy array of shooters and slashers who should be using Howard’s increased coverage attention to their advantage with shrewd off-ball movements. If they don't, Howard's post-ups become as stale for their overall movement as James Harden's isolations. The Rockets were often undone by their own lack of focus on either side of the ball, and a more all-hands-in approach is needed.
More holistic team scheming will be necessary for a successful playoff run. Howard’s prowess can only go so far if his teammates remain so challenged cooperating with each other in the half court.
On its own—in a one-on-one basketball vacuum—Howard’s progress in the post has been terrific. But the Rockets will need Howard, like the rest of the team, to meld his skills into something that will be greater than the sum of its players.
Howard’s offensive play down low has always been a convenient microcosm for all of the psycho-emotional narrative loaded onto him. As he met the challenge of restarting his career with Houston, he demonstrably improved his post-play IQ.
"It's a tough loss, but we've got to learn from it," Howard said after being ousted from the playoffs. If Houston continues its growth toward championship contention, Howard’s play on the block should act as a telling litmus of its progress. His increasing maturity will need to infect the decisions he makes down low, with the ball in his hands.