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Forget Jeremy Lin and James Harden: Dwight Howard is the key to the Rockets' playoff vision

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James Harden Thunder
James Harden's ascent to unquestioned all-star status has been quick and impressive. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Dwight Howard post up
The Houston Rockets need to lean on their other all-star Dwight Howard more to reach their true potential in the playoffs. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Jeremy Lin Manila
The Rockets record with Jeremy Lin starting is distorted by a small sample size. Photo by Mike Young/Getty Images
James Harden Thunder
Dwight Howard post up
Jeremy Lin Manila
MoiseKapenda Bower

Houston Rockets guard James Harden has gained access into the pantheon of NBA superstars, a truth revealed by the casual acceptance of his being selected as a reserve for the All-Star Game in New Orleans, an honor granted without the slightest murmur of debate.

It required merely two seasons of exceptionality — first as a superlative sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011-12, and then in a breakout leading role for the Rockets last season — for Harden to cultivate a reputation irrefutable enough that a cursory glance at his stats warranted inclusion among the best in the Western Conference. Standing alone, averages of 23.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds do not require a campaign or any embellishment.

But it is noteworthy that Harden had his candidacy rubber stamped in a season where the competition among Western Conference guards is thick. After ranking tied for third among Western Conference guards in Player Efficiency Rating last season (alongside the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Spurs' Tony Parker), Harden enters February ranked behind Western Conference guards Chris Paul (Clippers), Stephen Curry (Warriors), Goran Dragic (Suns), Isaiah Thomas (Kings) and Mike Conley (Grizzlies) in PER. Dragic, Thomas and Conley were bypassed as West reserves.

 While he hasn't played as efficiently as he did during his debut season in Houston, Harden remains the linchpin to all of the Rockets' playoff hopes.  

Furthermore, Harden has experienced a decline in his per-game averages across the board. And while his effective field goal percentage (50.5 percent) is slightly better than it was during his first season in Houston (50.4 percent), Harden is shooting 3-pointers at a higher rate while getting to the free-throw line at a lesser clip compared to last season. In 2012-13, Harden posted a 3-point attempt rate of 36.4 percent and a free-throw rate of 59.2 percent; this season those numbers are 38.1 percent and 53.9 percent, respectively.

Given that he is shooting just 32.1 percent from behind the arc this season compared to 36.8 percent last year, his rate stats likely play a role in his lesser PER (21.1) heading into February compared to the career-high 23.0 PER he posted last year.

With eight games lost to injury, Harden has already missed twice as many contests this season compared to the entire 2012-13 campaign. And it certainly made for an interesting backdrop to have Harden earn his second All-Star Game berth while sidelined as the Rockets (now 32-17 after a romp in Harden's return game Saturday night) earned back-to-back wins over state rivals San Antonio and Dallas for the first time since 1989.

That the Rockets improved to 6-2 without Harden was noteworthy, especially given the outstanding play of Jeremy Lin against the Spurs and Mavericks, and the sentiment that Harden and Lin make for an inefficient backcourt pairing. Though Lin's triple double off the bench in Harden's return Saturday night might combat some of that.

Of course, any chatter marginalizing the impact Harden has on the Rockets is folly. The won-loss record without him is a byproduct of small sample sizing.

More noteworthy: The Rockets have a minus-2.8 net rating with Lin starting alongside Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard. With Harden in the lineup alongside that static foursome, the Rockets have a 12.1 net rating and are superior both offensively (110.4 to 105.4 offensive rating) and defensively (98.2 to 108.2 defensive rating). Any judgment rendered on the Rockets' success without Harden is both hasty and foolhardy.

While he hasn't played as efficiently as he did during his debut season in Houston, Harden remains the linchpin to all of the Rockets' playoff hopes.

NBA Injury Reality

Passing judgment on the Rockets as a whole is an exercise in shortsightedness given how injuries have negatively impacted their cohesion. Despite being 49 games into this season, the Rockets have massaged just 279 minutes from their opening night starting five of Beverley, Harden, Jones, Parsons and Howard. The only teams in the NBA that feature starting fives with superior net ratings and more minutes played than the Rockets are Portland, Golden State and Indiana. As a stark comparison, the Trail Blazers (936 minutes), Warriors (630 minutes) and Pacers (808 minutes) have enjoyed optimal health.

 Any judgment rendered on the Rockets' success without Harden is both hasty and foolhardy. 

Beyond the desired results against the Spurs and Mavericks, perhaps the Rockets finally showcased with certainty an ability to win at any pace. After grinding out a 97-90 home win over San Antonio Tuesday, the Rockets snapped a seven-game skid in Dallas the following night with a 117-115 victory.

Their 3-point shooting, a reliable component of their rim-attacking, long-range bombing, free-throw-heavy offense last season, has abandoned them. The Rockets remain ranked in the Top 10 in 3-pointers attempted (first, 26.1) and made (sixth, 9.0) per game just like last season when they were second to the Knicks in both categories (28.9 and 10.6, respectively). The difference is their 34.5 percentage ranks just 24th; last year they were seventh at 36.6 percent.

The Rockets have displayed an erratic reliance upon Howard, who has been sensational (his 19.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes compare favorably to his supposed prime years in Orlando when he averaged 18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes). Howard is just third on the team in field goal attempts per game at 11.4 (Harden leads at 16.2 while Parsons ranks second at 13.1), and while touches in the paint should not necessarily lead to shots on every possession, involving Howard even more offensively would only enhance the Rockets' ability to thrive at any pace.

Howard is third among active players with 5.6 points per game on touches initiated inside 12 feet, and only four active players have a superior shooting percentage than his 59.6 percent while averaging at least four points per game on those touches. With three of the Rockets' top four volume 3-point shooters (Harden, Lin and Beverley) posting a lower 3-point percentage this season despite hoisting more treys per game, relying upon Howard is viable.

Interior production is why the Rockets signed Howard to a four-year, $88-million deal last summer, and it's why Howard will play alongside Harden in New Orleans two weeks from Sunday. The sooner the Rockets learn to shift some of the burden from their two-time All-Star guard to their eight-time All-Star center, the quicker they will establish their legitimacy among the Western Conference contenders behind the presumptive favorites in Oklahoma City.

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