The Houston Rockets got Dwight Howard back from a knee injury in their win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday. While Howard only put up four points and seven rebounds in about 16 minutes of action, it was still a step in the right direction for a team that’s already struggling with injuries to key players, such as Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones, Kostas Papanikolaou and now Donatas Motiejunas.
Howard followed up that first game with an improved offensive performance on Friday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, notching 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting in 20 minutes. The Rockets have won two straight games with Howard back, but they were also quite successful when he was out. So how much better does the return of Howard make Houston?
Obviously, the Rockets are a better team when Howard is healthy, as his addition allows players such as Motiejunas (when healthy) and Josh Smith to play to their more natural strengths. But the Rockets have gone 25-13 with Howard out, as opposed to 24-10 in games that he has played. The difference isn’t truly that great, if we’re judging just based on team record.
Let’s dig a little deeper. During the recent streak of 26 games missed by Howard, the Rockets scored 103.2 points per 100 possessions and allowed 100.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Those numbers on both sides of the ball are only slightly worse than the Rockets’ season marks, although when you look at the on/off splits, you see that Howard significantly helps the defense, which comes as little surprise. Anyone that has watched the three-time Defensive Player of the Year regularly knows that Howard makes a big difference on defense, but some of that can also be attributed to the fact that the Rockets don’t have another true center on the roster.
We can break this down further by looking at the Rockets’ most-effective lineups this year. This table below shows the 20 most-frequent lineups that Houston has employed, sorted by Net Points per 100 Possessions:
|Net (Per 100 Poss)|
|1||C. Brewer | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas | J. Smith | J. Terry||50:40||+9.4||+2.1||+.103||+5.8||+9.5||+.091||+28.2||-3.0||-6.6||-1.7||-6.6||-2.4||-6.0|
|2||T. Ariza | T. Black | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas | J. Terry||71:20||+6.9||-1.6||+.086||+7.9||+8.8||+.151||+23.9||+3.7||+12.8||+11.4||+12.8||+7.7||+16.7|
|3||C. Brewer | J. Harden | T. Jones | J. Smith | J. Terry||63:48||+5.6||-8.4||+.105||+3.5||0.0||+.122||+21.0||-7.7||-10.5||+5.6||-10.5||-1.0||-2.3|
|4||T. Ariza | I. Canaan | J. Harden | D. Howard | D. Motiejunas||55:48||+3.3||-14.7||+.108||+4.5||+2.5||+.141||+20.3||-3.8||-4.4||+2.2||-4.4||-0.9||-1.9|
|5||T. Ariza | T. Black | I. Canaan | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas||34:32||0.0||+6.3||-.030||+7.9||+12.7||+.101||+15.9||+7.9||+11.1||-1.6||+11.1||+3.2||+6.7|
|6||T. Ariza | P. Beverley | J. Harden | D. Howard | D. Motiejunas||360:56||+1.8||-2.3||+.033||+5.3||+9.5||+.068||+10.7||+1.1||+3.7||+3.1||+3.7||+2.0||+4.7|
|7||T. Ariza | C. Brewer | T. Jones | J. Smith | J. Terry||50:25||+1.4||-9.5||+.051||+7.6||+13.9||+.097||+10.0||-10.0||-16.5||-5.0||-16.5||-7.8||-14.5|
|8||T. Ariza | C. Brewer | D. Motiejunas | J. Smith | J. Terry||57:25||+2.0||-2.0||+.031||+3.9||+7.1||+.043||+9.9||-4.2||-7.8||-2.8||-7.8||-3.2||-6.4|
|9||T. Ariza | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas | J. Smith | J. Terry||37:46||+4.8||+18.1||-.036||+7.2||+18.7||+.014||+8.6||+5.8||+1.7||-8.8||+1.7||-1.4||-2.9|
|10||T. Ariza | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas | K. Papanikolaou | J. Terry||42:49||+1.1||-1.9||+.021||+6.7||+21.8||+.099||+8.2||-0.4||+0.5||+2.5||+0.5||+0.6||+1.1|
|11||T. Ariza | P. Beverley | J. Harden | T. Jones | J. Smith||40:45||+1.9||-4.1||+.040||+8.2||+13.7||+.121||+8.2||-14.5||-22.4||-5.9||-22.4||-10.1||-19.0|
|12||T. Ariza | J. Harden | D. Howard | D. Motiejunas | J. Terry||41:07||+8.6||+6.1||+.076||+2.6||+4.6||+.065||+7.9||+0.3||+2.6||+5.3||+2.6||+3.5||+8.1|
|13||T. Ariza | J. Harden | T. Jones | D. Motiejunas | J. Terry||31:44||+5.6||+4.6||+.038||+7.5||+11.8||+.093||+6.1||+1.2||-2.1||-5.6||-2.1||-2.3||-4.0|
|14||T. Ariza | P. Beverley | J. Dorsey | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas||174:17||-0.5||+7.1||-.043||+3.6||+16.9||-.070||+5.6||+5.6||+9.4||-1.0||+9.4||+2.4||+5.6|
|15||T. Ariza | P. Beverley | T. Black | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas||51:09||-0.8||-5.9||+.020||+8.0||+8.5||+.167||+0.9||-3.3||-4.3||+1.7||-4.3||-1.0||-2.3|
|16||P. Beverley | C. Brewer | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas | J. Smith||38:38||+2.8||-12.8||+.099||-3.8||-11.5||-.006||+0.1||-5.0||-6.5||+8.2||-6.5||+1.2||+2.6|
|17||T. Ariza | P. Beverley | J. Harden | T. Jones | D. Motiejunas||156:50||-3.8||-7.2||-.004||+1.3||+7.2||-.048||-0.7||-2.7||-6.3||-3.2||-6.3||-3.0||-6.7|
|18||T. Ariza | P. Beverley | J. Harden | D. Motiejunas | J. Smith||99:57||-5.6||-0.5||-.060||+2.6||+8.7||-.018||-4.1||0.0||-5.9||-9.7||-5.9||-4.8||-11.8|
|19||C. Brewer | D. Howard | K. Papanikolaou | J. Smith | J. Terry||32:06||-5.8||-1.4||-.062||+1.4||+4.3||+.005||-5.8||-1.4||-3.0||0.0||-3.0||-0.7||-1.9|
|20||T. Ariza | P. Beverley | J. Harden | D. Howard | J. Smith||92:17||-8.5||-2.4||-.085||+1.9||+14.0||-.122||-17.4||-0.4||-5.0||-6.2||-5.0||-3.6||-8.2|
I think what’s most interesting here is that Howard shows up in the two worst lineups. And it’s not as if he’s out there with scrubs, either. Of the 14 lineups that are above average, Howard is only a part of the fourth and sixth-best lineups. As an interesting note, Smith is not in the two above-average lineups that Howard appears in, but they’re in the bottom two lineups together. The fact that Howard has missed half the season does play a role in all this, but the information is telling nonetheless.
When we look at the games he actually has been able to play in, it’s evident that Dwight has had the worst statistical year since his rookie season. Those kinds of things happen when you’re a gigantic human being who’s dealing with a knee injury. (And who recently had back problems.) Howard’s rebounds are down to 10.8 per game, his lowest since his rookie year. He’s blocking 1.4 shots per game, which would be a career low.
None of this should be surprising for a guy who has played over 30,000 minutes in his career, including playoff games. Nagging knee injuries aside, this could very well be the beginning of the downside of Howard’s career. For a comparison, let’s look at Shaquille O’Neal over his first 11 seasons, who during that span played similar minutes as Howard has to this point.
Shaq averaged 27.6 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks over those first 11 years, which we all know is really good. Like, Hall of Fame good. However, in the following six years, he averaged 19.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Shaq was a freak of nature and one of the greatest players to ever play the game, so the numbers on the downside of his career certainly aren’t bad. But it’s a good example of how to set expectations for Howard going forward.
At 49-23, Houston has the fourth-best record in the NBA. Getting Howard back is definitely going to help them, especially in a projected first-round match against the San Antonio Spurs. Without Howard or any real defensive post presence, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter would have no problem scoring in the post and dominating the boards. Even with Howard and the home-court advantage, the defending champs would still be the likely favorite. Simply put, it’s hard for me to imagine the Rockets getting past the Spurs in the first round. Even if it happened, it’s a brutal road through the Western Conference with potential matchups against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors in the later rounds.
Dwight Howard has had a fantastic career to this point, and he’s still a good player. He’s by no means a defensive liability, and while he’s limited offensively, he can still get his points around the basket. But his return to the Rockets doesn’t take them from good to great. They’re simply a very good team in the stacked Western Conference.