When Dwight Howard left the Los Angeles Lakers high and dry despite them being able to offer him the most money, the premise was that he felt Houston offered him the best chance to win. With a young core of Chandler Parsons and James Harden, the growth potential was clearly visible and the ceiling seemed astronomical.
Two years removed from that contentious move from Howard that drew a large degree of criticism, the Rockets have their best chance at a title in the Harden-Howard era. And the X-factor in this series for Houston will indeed be Howard.
After missing 41 games during the regular season, there was immense pressure on Howard to return to his previous dominance. The Rockets were able to do something incredible this past season even with Howard missing half the year, and it sparked some conversations about whether they were legitimate contenders.
Much of their success came because of the emergence of Harden as an MVP candidate. Devoid the services of his partner in crime for half the season, he was able to elevate his team to championship contention as they leaped above teams like the defending champs and Lob City to get to the No. 2 seed in the tough Western Conference. Everyone surmised that their regular-season success was impressive and something to marvel at considering the adversity they overcame, but the postseason would be a different story. If Howard wasn’t healthy and penciled into that lineup every night, Houston would have a problem, and a huge one at that.
So far, it had been so good up until Tuesday night’s game that saw the Golden State Warriors take a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals. A loud gasp was heard all around Houston when Howard limped to the bench and eventually to the locker room with an apparent knee injury. It was his right knee that shelved him for half the season, so Rockets fans feared the worst. In the grand scheme of things, fortunately it was his left knee this time.
Howard suffered the injury midway through the first quarter after colliding with teammate Josh Smith. The injury was initially called a knee bruise, but now it’s being called a knee sprain and Howard is questionable for Game 2. Needless to say, his injury could have a major effect on this series.
Howard has averaged 16.4 points thus far in the postseason, which is his lowest average since the first time he played in the playoffs in the 2006-07 season. This can be attributed to the ball being in Harden’s hands the most as he leads the team with 80.2 touches per game, while Howard is at 60.3 in this category (down from 71.7 in last year’s playoffs), per SportVU. This has actually become conspicuous during the games as you often see Houston go about four or five possessions without even looking for Howard. The Rockets attempt 28.0 three-pointers per game, which details why their big man isn’t featured at times.
Dwight is making his presence felt more on the boards, as he’s grabbing 13.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs, the best in the league. He’s accounting for 21.8 percent of the team’s rebounding, which marks his highest rate since the 2008-09 when he went to the Finals. This is significant considering the fact that they do have guys like Josh Smith and Terrence Jones, who are capable of corralling boards as well.
In addition to his rebounding, the defensive end is where Howard makes the biggest impact, where he blocks and alters numerous shots at the rim. He had a huge positive impact on defense in the regular season, and that has mostly continued into the postseason, although there has been some slippage in terms of his defensive rating.
It’s tough to measure how much of an impact Howard can have against a team like Golden State because much of its potency offensively comes from behind the arc to the tune of a league-leading 36 percent of its shots coming from downtown. That high-octane offense is fueled by the Splash Brothers raining threes and using pump-fakes to drive and find other guys open from three-point land. Still, Howard can help choke off the paint and deny easy baskets if he brings his ferocious defense to the table every night.
Having received the brunt of criticism when his teams have failed in the past, Howard is looking to silence the critics and capture that elusive championship ring that’ll ultimately define him at the end of his career. The knock on Dwight is that he doesn’t take the game seriously enough to warrant respect and adulation. He has been deemed someone who will forever be ringless because of his attitude and his lack of aggressiveness and ferocity in big moments.
Aspersions have also been cast on Howard because of the inconsistency he often displays from game to game. There are too many moments when we utter, “This is the Dwight Howard we’ve been waiting for.” And it often inspires the, “If he could play like this every night, his team would be more successful” tweets.
After moving away from the era of big men dominance to that of a guard-driven league, we witnessed an increased demand for the latter. Howard’s lack of publicity in recent years has come from a plethora of things, including the eradication of dominant centers in the NBA. Teams have gravitated toward playing small ball, but Howard is trying his best to remind everyone that he’s still a prominent force.
I picked the Warriors to defeat the Rockets in six games, but also asserted that I wouldn’t be surprised if it went to a Game 7. Much of this prognostication is predicated on Howard playing to his potential. Initially during the season, his injury was looked upon as something that might stymie their progress, but fortunately for them, that never happened. But now, they need him more than ever before. Seven points in a Game 1 at Oracle Arena in front of that raucous crowd wasn’t good enough, and hopefully his injury isn’t too debilitating moving forward.