Dwight Howard Can Still Win Defensive Player of the Year Again Very Soon

It wasn’t that long ago that Dwight Howard was universally considered the best center and defensive player in the league. However, declining play the last two seasons has raised the question: Can he regain his Defensive Player of the Year form?

While he was with the Orlando Magic, Howard was a beast. From the 2007-08 season until 2011, he was First Team All-NBA, First Team All-Defensive Team and the East’s starting center in the All-Star Game.

From 2008-09 through 2010-11, he was the named the DPOY, making him the only player to ever win the award three consecutive times.

However, since then he hasn’t dominated to the same degree. He’s still one of the best in the league, but he’s no longer clearly better than everyone else. Not only has he not won any more DPOY awards, but he hasn’t even been named to an All-Defensive team.

This raises the question: Is Howard’s career in decline, or have injuries and switching teams just put a speed bump on his road to the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument. Let’s also consider whether Howard can return his defense to an elite level.

 

The Argument For a Career Decline

Many of the factors that go into deciding awards such as DPOY or All-Defensive or All-NBA teams are purely subjective. During the “Dwightmare” saga which spanned from the 2011-12 season to the summer of 2013, Howard’s image took a massive hit.

The perception (fair or not) is that he got Stan Van Gundy fired and left Orlando anyway, earning the reputation of a wishy-washy coach-killer.

After being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, he decided he didn’t like where he’d been traded and bolted in free agency for the Houston Rockets, leaving another slain coach (Mike Brown), a shattered franchise and a miffed Kobe Bryant in his wake.

And he did it all while smiling, shooting free throws for candy and eating cookies off his face. The cavalier, seemingly childish attitude he held through all of it was somewhere between off-putting and infuriating, depending on where your loyalties were.

Some could argue that the perception of his character, not his play, is the reason why the accolades have stopped coming.

But the numbers argue for decline.

With his offense, that’s expected. He went from being Orlando’s offensive centerpiece to being a second option with Los Angeles and Houston. But his defensive numbers have been taking a hit, too, as demonstrated by his defensive win shares per 48 minutes.

And yes, teams can impact those things, but defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) and its predecessor, defensive real adjusted plus-minus (DRAPM), tracked by stats-for-the-nba.appspot.com, at least attempt to mitigate some of those factors. And that shows the same conclusion:

Sometimes those subjective voters are relying on substantive data objectively. It looks like Howard’s career is in decline.

 

The Argument Against Decline

The problem with the objective argument is that it’s overly simplistic, annulling the possibility of mitigating factors. That his numbers have regressed could mean that his career is in decline. It could also mean other things.

It could be injury-related. Prior to his being traded to the Lakers, Howard had a lumbar microdiscectomy to treat radiculopathy caused by a herniated disc. In layman’s terms, that means he had to have some gunk removed from his back because it was making for a serious owie.

Howard told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles what the injury was like at its worst:

There was a practice where I couldn’t even bend over. I just felt it all the way down my leg. That’s when I knew something was wrong. The doctor said, ‘If you can’t do a calf raise, you need to have surgery.’ And I couldn’t do it.

Not being able to use your legs is bad. Legs and basketball go really well together, what with all that running and jumping stuff. So, Howard went under the knife. According to Doug Freeman of the Good Point:

While this type of surgery has generally had a positive impact on the symptoms and has allowed athletes to return to their sport, it isn’t foolproof when it comes to getting an NBA player back to their past level of production. In a study looking at a player’s ability to return to sport after a lumbar disc herniation, researchers found that 25% (6 out of 24) of players who underwent a discectomy did not return to the NBA. Of the players that did return, they played an average of 20 less games in their first season back from surgery. There was also a decline in statistical categories such as points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game and steals per game in their first season post-surgery (although no difference was found between players who had surgery and those who did not).

The first season back, one would expect to see the type of decline Howard had, especially when you factor in that he was experiencing a torn labrum over the same period.

Last season he was recovered, and if health were a part of the reason for the decline, then we’d have expected to see Howard gradually improve over the course of the season. Based on data from NBA.com/STATS, his offensive and defensive ratings from month to month show his impact on the game did just that:

In fact, during April, the Rockets had a massive 124.5 offensive rating while Howard was on the court and were yielding just 103.7—good for a net rating of 20.8 points. 

The defense fluctuated more, but it was significantly better with Howard than without it, giving up two fewer points per 100 possessions. Patrick Beverley, the All-Defensive point guard, also missed time, which accounted for some of the variance.

Howard’s improvement supports the notion that as he got healthy and got his conditioning back, his game returned to the same pre-injury levels.

Additionally, a study at stats-for-the-NBA.appspot.com shows a conventional aging curve for defensive players. They typically maintain prime performance up until around 32 to 33 years of age. Howard is still only 28. Ergo, he’s a long way from the point where age starts taking hold of him.

A fair assessment indicates that the injuries, not age, are the reason for the decline in numbers. That means a bounce is a reasonable expectation. Next year should be a nearly complete return to form.

 

Can Howard’s Defense Return to an Elite Level?

Howard’s 2010-11 season was one of the most dominating defensive years I’ve ever witnessed. The Magic were only the third-best defense in the league that year, but Howard’s performance was still historically great.

Getting to “only” third was impossible, yet he still did it. To say that Howard didn’t have any help on defense is to give the rest of the team entirely too much credit. The best help Howard had was Mickael Pietrus, Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat.

So what happened? Barely more than one month into the season, the Magic traded those guys for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark. So he went from having almost no defensive help to absolutely no help.

Howard didn’t miss a beat, though. He just made everyone around him look better. Surrounded with Jameer Nelson, Richardson, Turkoglu and Brandon Bass, he strapped the team on his back and carried them to being the third-best defense in the NBA (no wonder he needed surgery!).

Look at what happened to the opponent’s Player Efficiency Rating (oPER from 82games.com) of the teammates involved in the trade:

Pietrus and Gortat didn’t see much impact on their oPER, but it’s evident that Howard was compensating for the flaws of the others.

I don’t know if Howard can ever achieve that level of defense again. It was such a feat, though, that he doesn’t have to in order to get back to All-Defensive or even Defensive Player of the Year stature. His numbers aren’t as dominant, but his 4.91 DRPM was still sixth-best last year, so it’s not far off.

In fact, his numbers are close enough that he could even win the DPOY next year. That’s because he has something he’s never had before: two teammates who can stop at the perimeter.

Last season was the first time in his career that Howard saw a teammate (Beverley) named to an All-Defensive team. Now they’ve added Trevor Ariza, who has All-Defensive potential as well. That frees Howard to lay back and do what he does the best—protect the rim. And a great rim protector can change the entire complexion of a team when given the chance.

If the Howard-Ariza-Beverley triumvirate can hoist the Rockets to a top-five defense, Howard will deserve the most credit for it and will get it. That can elevate him back into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Joakim Noah got there last year with the help of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Marc Gasol won it in 2012-13 with the help of Tony Allen and Mike Conley.

Howard might not ever get back to the same level of dominance he enjoyed in Orlando, but he’s close enough to get his fourth DPOY. 

 

Unless otherwise stated, the stats for this article were obtained from 82games.com, Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/STATS

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Realistic Goals for Dwight Howard’s 2014-15 Season

Dwight Howard’s second season with the Houston Rockets could find him with the biggest chip on his shoulder yet.

Last year’s Howard was motivated to shake up his skeptics—make no mistake about that. His failed stint with the Los Angeles Lakers and ugly PR stretch with the Orlando Magic made many forget how good he could be, and a newly focused and healthy Howard was again one of the best centers in the game—even if few people noticed.

But during Howard’s next year in Houston, he should be more comfortable with James Harden and the rest of his teammates. He’ll be eager to make fans forget a summer that saw many poke fun at his team’s unsuccessful efforts in trading and free agency. He can also improve upon a lot of the unique progress he made with his offensive game in the postseason.

Let’s have a look at some predictions.

Begin Slideshow

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Dwight Howard’s License Reportedly Suspended After He Ran 10 Red Lights

Dwight Howard may want to consider working out a carpool with his Houston Rockets teammates after his driver’s license was reportedly suspended.

According to a TMZ Sports report, Howard has been caught running a red light 10 times since 2012. He was ticketed in Florida nine times during a 10-month span and was then busted again this past July. According to Reuters’ Barbara ListonHoward’s license has been suspended since at least Aug. 15 as a result of his failure to pay a $285 fine for a red-light ticket from April.

And that’s not all. According to Liston, the Rockets star’s Orlando court record also contains four speeding tickets, 12 citations for failing to pay highway tolls and another citation for failing to change the address on his license. 

If paying the fine is all it takes for Howard to get his license back, it seems silly that he hasn’t done so already. As Basketball-Reference.com notes, he has made more than $123 million in his career and is due more than $21 million in each of the next three seasons, so one would assume he can afford a $285 fine.

Howard will have to find another way to get around town for now. Hopefully if/when he gets his license back, he’ll have learned to heed traffic lights.

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Dwight Howard has license suspended, ran 10 red lights

Dwight Howard’s wallet got a little bit lighter this week after his license was revoked in Orange County (Fla.) for running ten red lights during a two-and-a-half-year period starting in 2012. TMZ reports that Howard only has to pay $285 to get it reinstated, which, along with being a screaming deal, is basically “couch money” for a guy who’s starting Year 2 of a 4-year, $88 million contract. Although, we gotta say, after the week (or so) the NFL just had, this all seems rather quaint. [FoxSports] Article found on: Next Impulse Sports

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Watchability: Does Van Gundy have next Dwight?

New Pistons coach and President Stan Van Gundy is sure to spice things up this year.

      
 

 

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Why Houston Rockets Need Dwight Howard to Embrace the Pick-and-Roll Game

The Houston Rockets were an offensive juggernaut last season.

Scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions last season, the Rockets held the fourth-best mark in the league. They ranked third in effective field-goal percentage, first in free-throw rate and seventh in offensive rebound percentage.

Other than a high turnover rate, it was difficult to find fault with anything they did on offense—yet somehow they left us wanting more.

The culprit for this disconnect between terrific performance and frustrating dissatisfaction clearly revolves around the synergyor lack thereofbetween James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Both are phenomenal offensive players, each with well-defined strengths and weaknesses. Although their games grew more intertwined through the season, it still felt like they were often stepping on each other’s feet or dramatically clearing out of the other’s way.

The most obvious disconnect involves Howard’s post-up game.

According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Howard scored just 0.77 points per possession on post-ups last year, good for 128th in the league.

However, the Rockets offense accommodated 785 possessions finished by Howard in the post during the regular season and playoffs, or just over 10 per game. That worked to about about 8.1 percent of their total offensive possessions.

Remember that we’re just talking about possessions where Howard either attempted a shot, turned the ball over or was fouled while posting up. Other good things often happened when Howard posted up, such as manipulating the defense to create openings for other players.

Still, using 8.1 percent of your total offensive possessions on an approach with such a low level of efficiency seems counterproductive.

That impression becomes even stronger when you consider Howard’s prowess in the pick-and-roll. When he finished as the screener in the pick-and-roll, Howard scored an average of 1.31 points per possession. That was the third-best mark in the league last season.

Put that together with Harden’s elite abilities with the ball in his hands, and the recipe for turbo-charging this offense seems to clearly be more Harden-Howard pick-and-rolls.

When they are working in the pick-and-roll together, both players are at their best—both are in motion. Howard isn’t clogging up driving lanes for Harden, and Harden isn’t standing on the perimeter with his hands on his shorts, waiting for the ball to come back out to the perimeter.

If you need an example of just how devastating this combination can be, check out the video below:

Harden’s ability to penetrate demands aggressive pursuit by his defender and a significant hedge by Howard’s.

Once Howard catches the ball, his strength and agility are far too much for the back line of the defense. If the Miami Heat play Harden any less aggressively, he’s charging into the teeth of the defense and getting to the basket or drawing a foul.

Simply put, the Howard-Harden pick-and-roll makes the best use of both players’ offensive abilities.

Position shooters like Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza around the one-two punch, and these pick-and-rolls become even more deadly.

Unfortunately, just saying the Rockets should run more Howard-Harden pick-and-rolls isn’t as simple as it sounds. Howard’s preference for being stationed in the post is well-known.

He has often restated this preference as way to help get his teams back on track, which he did to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle in the middle of their playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers last season:

We have to play inside out, play their bigs and make it a long night for those guys. I have to demand the ball, get it and go to work.

We have to go right back at him. You have to make him play defense and make him use his energy on defense. Make him have to run around and guard.

His teammates seemed to be on the same page as well. Chandler Parsons echoed roughly the same sentiments to Feigen.

“We have to dump the ball down for him. He has to make plays. He’s had a lot of success against (Robin) Lopez. We have to keep feeding him the ball. That doesn’t mean we have to slow down. We want to get out in transition and run,” he said.

The idea that Howard, his teammates and, at some level, the coaching staff seem to be exploring is the way Howard’s post-ups can distort the defense. The Rockets certainly got better at this throughout the season, finding new and different ways to build motion around him. 

Drew Garrison of SBNation broke down some of this improvement in early March:

Howard pulls defenders in like a tractor beam. Harden and Parsons have space to operate and turned heads to zip by. Parsons has been the greatest beneficiary, slicing through defenses and getting to the rim throughout the season. Houston’s philosophy is simple: points in the paint, open threes and free-throws 

The offense has been altered to give him [Howard] his low-post touches, but isn’t dependent on him sinking a high percentage of his attempts. The threat of his post scoring is enough.

The last sentence of that quote is key. It is the threat of his post scoring that bends the defense.

Take the Howard post-up below, for example. You can see how the offensive motion stops as soon as Howard catches the ball. Harden’s man, Dwyane Wade, is cheating in for a soft double on Howard.

But by the time Harden really gets open, Howard has already spun baseline, beginning his move:

The thing is, the way the offense becomes static really limits the options here. There may be the possibility for a cut on the weak side, but essentially this offensive possession is winnowed down to Howard and Harden.

There is a moment when a kick-out from Howard leads to Harden with the ball in his hands and plenty of space to attack. That sort of scenario is generally much likelier to lead to a positive outcome than Howard spinning baseline for a jump hook.

As Garrison noted, the opening for Harden created by the soft double-team only occurs because the Heat know Howard is active and likely to shoot when he catches the ball on the block.

If Howard stops attempting so many shots in the low post, opponents stop doubling and the hyper-efficient shots for teammates that come off of those possessions evaporate.

Although it isn’t quite as cut-and-dry as the simple difference between Howard’s 0.77 points per possession on post-ups and 1.31 points per possession as the screener in the pick-and-roll, the Rockets offense seems to get better outcomes when Howard is in motion at the offensive end.

The Rockets are one of the most statistically savvy teams in the NBA and are almost certainly aware of this. 

However, they need to live with a certain amount of Howard post-upsboth to keep him happy and keep the defense working honestly against all of the different offensive scenarios the Rockets throw at them.

Ultimately, the Rockets need both pieces of their offense—the post-ups and the pick-and-rolls. The key is the balance. As you can see from the graph below, that’s where the Rockets can make some improvements in their offensive efficiency:

The graph shows the ratio of post-up possessions to pick-and-roll screener possessions for Howard across the last five seasons.

Last year with the Rockets, Howard finished 7.5 post-up possessions for every possession he finished as the screener in the pick-and-roll. Although that was lower than his peak in Orlando, it was significantly higher than his two previous seasons—his last with the Magic and his one season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

If the Houston Rockets want to push the boundaries of their offensive efficiency even further, the task is not enormous.

They don’t have to redesign everything or try and talk Howard into abandoning his interior possessions. Houston just needs to work on subtly shifting the balance. It may seem like a scary proposition, especially considering how frustrated Howard was with his role in Los Angeles, but the coaching staff wouldn’t be asking him to do something he hasn’t done before.

The Rockets are a process-oriented organization with the patience and foresight to see how small changes at the margins can have a big impact when stretched across an entire season.

If anyone can gently nudge Dwight Howard towards a more advantageous offensive distribution while still maintaing the integrity of the system and his commitment to its principles, it’s Houston.

 

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats.

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Is Dwight Howard Ready to Put the Houston Rockets on His Back?

Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard hasn’t shied away from putting a target on his back, but for the Rockets to have any substantial success in the 2014-15 season, he’ll have to put the team on his back a well.

Although there were serious questions leading into last year about whether Howard would ever be the same physically or if he was in the midst of a steep decline, a lot of those were put to bed.

Howard recovered nicely from back surgery, and he used the 2013-14 season to slowly climb back to be the player we grew accustomed to seeing during his time with the Orlando Magic.

Although the Rockets ultimately fell in the first round to a Portland Trail Blazers squad, Howard finished the season with an exclamation mark. Over the course of the six-game series, Howard averaged a whopping 26 points, 13.7 boards, 2.8 blocks and a career-high playoff PER of 27.2.

Even though that performance was overshadowed by those of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, Howard’s effort quieted most doubters and established that he was back. Maybe he wasn’t at prime form defensively, but offensively he was as good as ever.

Perhaps some of that confidence gained during the postseason bled over into the offseason.

After the Rockets whiffed on Chris Bosh and lost Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons in the process, Howard didn’t seem to be bothered much. Here’s what he told the Associated Press, via ESPN, following the departure of Parsons:

‘It won’t affect us at all,’ Howard said Friday of Parsons signing a three-year, $45-million deal with the Dallas Mavericks. …

‘We have myself and James,’ Howard said. ‘We have the best center and the best two guard in the game on the same team. It’s on us.’

While Howard is misguided in his original comment, he’s not far off the mark in his follow up. The onus is on James Harden and himself to carry the roster, as they’re the two highest-paid players and two of the league’s biggest stars.

Although their teammates may not love it, at least Howard and Harden are on the same page there.

Here’s what Harden told Joaquin Henson of the Philippine Star:

‘Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets,’ said Harden. ‘The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season.’

Harden and Howard both should have chosen their words more carefully, but it’s clear that they both know what’s ahead of them. 

From Howard’s perspective, you can understand why he feels like losing Parsons might not be too great of a loss. Even though time has passed and a lot has changed (particularly the conference in which Howard plays), in his own mind, he probably remembers carrying an Orlando Magic team to the NBA Finals as the lone star.

With that in mind, the prospect of carrying more responsibility might actually be appealing for him. Fewer stars and more role players around him equals more touches, right? It makes sense that Howard’s experiences with Orlando, a team built around him, and the Los Angeles Lakers, a team with too many cooks in the kitchen, would paint his views.

There’s some legitimacy to that. There will be no diffusion of responsibility in Houston next year. The Rockets will go as far as Howard and Harden can carry the team.

At least on that front, Howard’s dominance last year in the postseason is a great sign. While no one expects him to retain that form for a full season, it’s good to know he has that level of play ready in reserve.

The question is whether or not others can step up when Howard inevitably faces double-teams, and if he can get the help defensively that he needs. 

The addition of Trevor Ariza should help in both areas, but the depth of the roster was hurt this offseason. Howard lacks a legitimate backup, and it’s questionable how much Terrence Jones can help him protect the rim as a full-time starting 4. There are holes to be filled.

Here’s Brett Pollakoff at Pro Basketball Talk with his take:

Howard continues to take an unrealistic view about just how much he and Harden can do for the rest of the roster.

A better approach would have been the one taken by Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, who knows the team got worse this offseason, at least on paper. Displaying false bravado in essentially saying, ‘Nah, we’re good’ when losing a player who contributed as much as Parsons without getting anyone to replace him is not only ridiculous, but shows the level of delusion Howard has when it comes to the game of basketball.

As for the Rockets, fans care about winning and getting out of the first round of the playoffs more than they do about acquiring assets like “cap room” and “trade exceptions.” Houston has its two superstars, right Dwight? If that’s enough, then let’s see the team actually win some games in the postseason.

Houston indeed has its two superstars, but it might be foolish to assume it has been maximized up to this point. Howard and Harden have still only played one full season together, and we saw most recently with the Miami Heat that it can take some time and experimentation before a fit can really click.

Both Howard and Harden can easily be better this upcoming year than they were in their first season together, and here’s Bleacher Report’s John Wilmes with a reason why:

Nevertheless, the Rockets still would have been better off with more Harden-Howard action. As good as Howard can be on the block, their offense will breathe more easily if the Rockets can directly engage their two best players in tandem.

Expect to see a hefty dose of this action as they look to make up for the loss of Parsons and also Jeremy Lin, now with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Whether it’s fair or not, there’s an awful lot of pressure mounted on the shoulders of the big names in Houston.

Harden has to elevate the play of the role players he acknowledged he’s surrounded by. Head coach Kevin McHale has to maximize the talent on the floor. Daryl Morey could stand to make a big acquisition at some point.

Ultimately, though, the fate of the Rockets probably boils down to how great Howard can be. He’s one of the few players in the league that can truly dominate on both ends of the floor, and after Houston’s offseason, it’s clear he’ll be depended on to do just that. 

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Now Is the Time for Dwight Howard to Cement Legacy

Back in 2011, Dwight Howard told Esquire‘s Scott Raab that he’d always wanted “To be an icon. To be somebody.”

At the moment, the well-traveled big man certainly qualifies as a “somebody.” 

But his status as a legitimate icon is pending.

Much will depend on what the Houston Rockets accomplish over the coming seasons, and Howard’s contributions will be essential to any best-case scenario—all the more essential with the rotation losing Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in a summer than didn’t exactly go as planned.

Howard has exuded ample confidence in the wake of Parsons’ departure for the Dallas Mavericks.

It won’t affect us at all,” Howard said, according to the AP’s Jonathan Landrum Jr. “We have myself and James [Harden]. We have the best center and the best two guard in the game on the same team. It’s on us.”

Harden sounded a similar tune, according to The Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen, saying, “Dwight and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets. The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season.”

Cornerstone? Best center in the game?

If there wasn’t already significant pressure on Howard to live up the hype, there certainly is now.

Howard has never been short on confidence, but his results have been mixed. Now he’s facing renewed expectations, especially with his Rockets seemingly on the brink of title contention.

The 28-year-old’s optimism is admirable, but it should also be measured. CBSSports.com’s James Herbert offers a level-headed assessment:

Speaking from his father’s basketball camp, Howard went on to praise newcomer Trevor Ariza, calling him a ‘soldier.’ That’s fine, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be confident about Houston’s chances. It’s just that this is a bit much. Parsons is very, very good. Losing him, a 6-foot-9 forward who can shoot, create and finish, will obviously affect the Rockets. So will the other cap-clearing moves that didn’t bring back any assets. It’s going to be tough to win as many games as last year.

And all the tougher unless Howard asserts himself in ways he hasn’t since his eight-year tenure with the Orlando Magic

Though the eight-time All-Star’s efficiency has remained on par with his finest seasons in Orlando, his production and playing time have diminished during his last two campaigns with the Los Angeles Lakers and Rockets.

Howard averaged a career-high 22.9 points in 2010-11, as he remained the focal point of Orlando’s offense and defense alike. He also attempted 13.4 field goals per game that year, a figure that plummeted to 10.7 shots per game in 2012-13 with the Lakers.

Despite a slight uptick in touches last season, Howard remained a fundamentally complementary piece on the offensive end and tallied 18.3 points per game.

Without Parsons around, that may have to change.

Put simply, the Rockets need Howard to be larger than life. They need him to be a leader on and off the floor, a dominant presence on both the offensive and defensive ends.

Houston made strides last season, but it also showed signs of vulnerability in its first-round, six-game defeat at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers. If this team can’t best another one of the Western Conference’s up-and-comers, what chance does it have against more established contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder?

The answer lies with Howard. The Rockets are only going as far as he takes them.

Unfortunately, that could be a problem.

During the 2013 playoffs—before Howard left the Lakers for Houston—Grantland’s Bill Simmons ripped into what can only be described as a stalled offensive game:

Did he fail out of Hakeem’s summer camp and we never got the memo? Every Dwight jump hook looks like he’s hurling a rock through a window. His footwork gives you that same ‘I’m just trying to get through this sequence alive’ feeling you get when you’re watching D-list celebs on Dancing With the Stars. He can’t make even a 10-foot jumper, and his free throw shooting is more ghastly than ever (49 percent). He’s a lousy passer from the low post who has never averaged even TWO assists per game. And he rarely out-hustles other bigs down the floor for layups or dunks anymore, something Tim Duncan gleefully exposed during the humiliating Spurs beatdown.

A year later, little has changed.

Simmons went on to suggest that the Howard we see is the Howard we’d get from here on out, his logic being that players rarely undergo radical transformations this late into their careers. Though there are plenty of reasons to doubt Howard’s potential to redefine himself as a more versatile scorer, there are few alternatives currently at Houston’s disposal.

Unless general manager Daryl Morey can trade some of the organization’s assets for another high-impact player, Houston’s improvement will have to come from within.

Some of that growth could come from young role players like Terrence Jones or Patrick Beverley, but Howard’s the one with All-Star pedigree. He remains a physical specimen capable of imposing his will in the paint, and he’s Houston’s most accomplished pick-and-roll weapon.

And yet, there’s little doubt Howard could be better.

Early into Howard’s first season with the Rockets, mentor Hakeem Olajuwon broke down what he saw, per NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury: “When I watch him, what I see are opportunities that he is missing. When he gets the ball, he seems to be taking his time to decide what move to make, where he should go.”

Olajuwon added, “There should not be a delay for Dwight. He must be able to make a faster recognition of the situations and react immediately with a go-to move. You must move right away before the defense has a chance to set up.”

So perhaps Howard could be more decisive. Perhaps he’ll have a mandate to do so without guys like Parsons and Lin around to support the offense.

It goes without saying anything resembling a mid-range game would do wonders for Houston’s attack. That might be asking for too much, but the worst thing Howard could do at this stage is settle.

This isn’t a problem Olajuwon can solve on his own. Nor will head coach Kevin McHale suddenly discover a magical anecdote to all that ails Howard. Whether his impediments are mechanical or psychological in nature, the commitment to evolve will have to come from Howard himself.

And it can’t come a moment too soon.

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Do Dwight Howard and James Harden ‘Eat Separately’ from Rockets Teammates?

Dwight Howard and James Harden‘s leadership skills just continue to come under fire. 

UPDATE on Friday, August 8 at 5:50 p.m. ET by Adam Fromal

Sometimes, a lot can be lost in translation. 

According to a Reddit translation of Donatas Motiejunas’ original interview, D-Mo’s words, as provided below, have been taken out of context (h/t Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky).

As I don’t know Lithuanian, I can’t confirm the exact validity of said translation, but this appears to be much kinder to the notable Houston Rockets stars: 

When communicating with Howard and Harden, what do you talk about? A: Basically I say just “Hello” and “Goodbye” to them. Q: They don’t invite you to barbecue or something? A: No, they eat different food than me. Q: What? Do you mean they eat oysters? A: No… being European, I am more likely to eat oyster than them. They eat fast food.

It’s scary enough that the possibly mistranslated takeaways you can find in the original text are actually believable claims. That alone doesn’t speak too kindly to Houston’s chemistry after a disappointing offseason. 

However, D-Mo is not adding fuel to the fire. In fact, he even calls Dwight Howard “a fun guy to be around in general,” according to that same translation. 

–End of Update–

 

ORIGINAL TEXT

Typically, you’d expect the two stars on a team to involve the rest of the roster. You’d want them to take the young players—and the experienced veterans who are fulfilling specific roles—under their wings and help them grow, both as players and as people.

But such isn’t the case for the Houston Rockets. As CBS Sports’ Matt Hammond rightfully explains, “It’s worth noting, this is just one player’s opinion, from just one player’s vantage point.” 

However, what Donatas Motiejunas has to say isn’t exactly a positive in a summer filled with foot-in-mouth statements by the bearded shooting guard and his superstar teammate: 

Unfortunately, this is only the latest blow to the dynamic duo’s credibility as leaders. Some context is necessary, as D-Mo was a trade candidate earlier this season and isn’t guaranteed an uptick in playing time going forward, but the words are still right in line with everything else we’ve heard this summer. 

Earlier this offseason, Grantland’s Zach Lowe had a decidedly negative take on the culture in Houston. Chris Bosh, he speculated, might have turned down the contract Houston offered him not only because he wanted to remain with the Miami Heat, but also because Harden and Howard would’ve been his teammates: 

He was intrigued by Houston, but he’s 30, he’s super-smart, and he just spent four years playing with two like-minded stars on an older roster for an organization that takes basketball craft seriously. The Rockets do, too, but there is an undercurrent around the league that Harden and Howard don’t represent the most appealing duo of teammates for any star who has lived within ultraserious professionalism.

Howard was great last year, but the jokiness and free-agent dithering hurt his image. The viral videos of Harden’s defense damaged his reputation. It wouldn’t shock me if Bosh at least considered some of that in his decision.

In addition to that, we have the whole Chandler Parsons saga

“It won’t affect us at all,” D12 explained to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com, after his former teammate left for the Dallas Mavericks. ”We have myself and James. We have the best center and the best two guard in the game on the same team. It’s on us.”

Surely Harden had something more sensible to say, right? 

Well, not exactly. 

Dwight and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets,” Harden told  of The Philippine Star, refusing to acknowledge the significance of losing Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. “The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season.”

Actions speak louder and words, and now both point toward the two stars feeling as though they’re the key pieces in Houston. Not only has Harden verbally referred to the rest of the roster as less important than himself and Howard, but he’s acting like it by separating himself and his star teammate from everyone else. 

As anyone who’s ever taken part in communal mealtime knows, eating food is a great time to bond. Conversations abound, secrets are shared, jokes are had and it’s easy to get to know one another. 

It’s significantly harder when, as Motiejunas puts it, the two key players just say hi and bye. 

The Rockets are primed to enjoy a competitive season, even if they’ve taken a slight step backward in the brutally difficult Western Conference. However, it’s not exactly a secret that chemistry matters in the NBA

If that chemistry blows up, the step won’t be slight. 

Whether Houston is trying to compete this season or attempting to lure in more key pieces during future free-agency periods, a culture change may be needed. At the very least, a mentality change must happen for two big-name players. 

 

What are your expectations for the Rockets in 2014-15? Let me know on Twitter and Facebook. 

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