The Houston Rockets need Dwight Howard to return to dominant form in order to take home their first NBA championship since the 1994-95 season. When healthy, Howard is an elite interior presence who can pose matchup nightmares at both ends of the court for any Western Conference contender.
Injuries to his ankle and knee held Howard to a career-low 41 games last season. He averaged 15.8 points and 10.5 boards on the year, which was tied for the second-lowest scoring output of his career and the first time he’s grabbed less than 12 boards per contest since his rookie campaign in 2004-05.
The Rockets went 26-15 without D12, but that record is a bit misleading. 19 of those wins came against teams that finished with a losing record in 2014-15. Houston went 7-11 against playoff teams without its prized big man, including two double-digit losses to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
What makes Howard’s presence so vital to the Rockets’ success? Defense.
While James Harden made strides as a stopper last season, improving his defensive rating from 107 in 2013-14 to 103 the following year, he doesn’t deter opposing scorers the way Howard does.
Opponents challenged Howard at the rim 7.3 times per game last season and shot just 45.7 percent, which was the best mark of any Rockets player who logged at least eight minutes per game last season, per SportVU. To put Howard’s prowess in greater perspective, shot-blocking champion Anthony Davis was tested 7.1 times per game and opponents converted 48.6 percent of their attempts.
Furthermore, despite lower-body injuries hampering the 29-year-old for much of the season, Howard still posted a defensive rating of just 100 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference.com. Clint Capela (97) and Joey Dorsey (100) were the only other Rockets to post equal or better ratings, but they also combined to play 279 less minutes than Howard.
Howard was even more of a defensive menace in the playoffs. He swatted away 39 shots in 17 contests. The rest of the team totaled 54 rejections in that same span. He also posted a block percentage (estimate of shots blocked when a particular player is on the floor) of 5.4 percent, which was two percent higher than his regular-season number.
Over the years, having an elite defensive presence has been key to a team hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the season. The Warriors had stoppers like Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut. The San Antonio Spurs built a dynasty utilizing defenders like Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard. LeBron James owes his numerous runs to the NBA Finals to both his defensive acumen as well as having rim protectors like Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen and Timofey Mozgov on the inside:
Since 2001-02, the regular-season leader in defensive rating (via Basketball-Reference.com) helped lead his team to at least the conference finals nine times in 14 years, including Howard doing it twice during his run with the Orlando Magic. In four of those nine instances, the player won an NBA championship.
However, Howard’s importance to the Rockets doesn’t stop at his ability to patrol the paint. The big fella’s knack for cleaning the glass comes in handy, as well. Dwight led all postseason participants with 14 boards per game last season. He also has five rebounding titles under his belt during his 11-year career.
The key for Howard and the Rockets will be avoiding the injuries that hampered both parties last season. Earlier this week, D12 stressed the importance of staying healthy this upcoming year to Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle:
“I think last year in the playoffs, we got to the Western Conference Finals, we were a little dead and it showed. It starts with how we start in training camp and it finished with how well we can contain our bodies.
A clean bill of health would go a long way to helping Howard reestablish himself as one of basketball’s best big men, and there’s no better time for that revival than this season. Howard can opt out of his deal next summer, allowing him to become a free agent when the salary cap is expected to spike and secure one last lucrative contract before calling it quits.
With Harden, Ty Lawson, Trevor Ariza and Terrence Jones on the roster, Houston will have more than enough offensive firepower. However, if Howard can lead the charge on the glass and the defensive end, that could be the tipping point that brings a championship back to H-Town.