Once upon a time, Dwight Howard was the NBA’s best center: a physical specimen who terrorized opponents at both ends of the court. This season, “Superman” looks more like Clark Kent.
For most players, a nightly clip of 13.7 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks would be a pretty good season. For Howard, it’s potentially the signs of a steady decline. In fairness, the Rockets are taking a cautious approach with their prized big man as he tries to work through ongoing back problems. He’s missed five games already and wasn’t given the green light to play in back-to-backs until last week.
Rockets interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff stressed the importance of having Howard on the court and how fluctuating him in and out of the lineup is affecting the team (per The Houston Chronicle):
“We need him. We need him at a high level. It’s hard. The rhythm kind of gets messed up with him in and out of the lineup, especially early. We’ve had so many back-to-backs. He already missed four games (Note: Now five). We need him there.”
When you combine Howard’s recent injury woes and the regression in his production, it’s logical to wonder if the basketball world will ever see D12’s dominant form again.
Offensively, he looks tentative. Despite leading the league with 7.5 touches in the paint per game, Howard’s 9.1 field goal attempts and 13.7 points are his worst efforts since entering the league as a 19-year-old rookie in 2004-05. Opposing defenses used to take pleasure in sending D12 to the charity stripe, but he’s averaging just 5.3 free throw attempts per contest this season. A month into the new campaign, Howard’s production is being dwarfed by young upstarts like Hassan Whiteside (14 points, 11.4 boards, 4.8 blocks). Even promising rookies such as Karl Anthony Towns (14.4 points, 9.4 boards, 2.2 blocks) and Kristaps Porzingis (13.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.9 blocks) are making bigger impacts than Howard.
On the bright side, Howard’s 13.9 offensive rebounding percentage is a career high, while his 20.8 percent mark on total rebounds is his best work since his final year in Orlando (2011-12). Howard is also showing progress as a passer, accruing career highs in assist percentage (10.8) and dimes (two per game).
Occasionally, he even turns back the clock and unleashes poster jams like this one over Porzingis:
Unfortunately, those strides are negated by Howard’s regression on defense. He currently holds a defensive rating of 106, which is the worst of his career, per Basketball-Reference.com. Opponents are shooting 5.4 percent better overall with Howard defending than they do normally, according to SportVU. Once an elite rim protector, he’s allowing 57 percent shooting on 7.8 attempts per game at the rim.
Howard’s inability to thwart opposing offenses is especially troubling when you consider he’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, even though his last DPOY nod was five seasons and two cities ago. He’s supposed to the Rockets’ defensive linchpin. Instead, he’s a key member of a unit ranked 28th in points allowed (107.5) and 29th in opposing field goal percentage.
Making matters worse, Howard is the fifth-highest paid player in the NBA this season at $22.3 million, and he’ll be looking for one final payday when he likely hits free agency next summer. The hope is that his body will eventually cooperate and he’ll go back to being one of the game’s elite big men.
However, given what we’ve seen from Howard lately, those odds are getting slimmer with each passing day.