With each pinpoint pass, whether as an outlet to James Harden in initiating the fast break or to a cutting Chandler Parsons for an unmolested layup, Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard appears to be making himself at home.
The potential of Howard as a facilitator in the Rockets' fast-paced offense has been addressed in this space, but that discussion was based in theory by analyzing what he had accomplished in previous stops with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. To witness that potential manifest on the court, with the Rockets clearly at ease feeding off their willingness to feed Howard on the block, portends to something exhilarating.
The sample size is undeniably small and these exhibition games won't matter when the regular season tips off in earnest later this month, but at this stage Howard is thriving in his dual role as a complement to how the Rockets previously exploited defenses and as a conduit for their hitting peak efficiency, a goal unreached last season.
As a willing and able post passer, Howard should embolden what is a selfless collection of scorers.
A cursory glance at the box score from the Rockets' 116-96 victory over the Indiana Pacers at Mall of Asia Arena in Manila won't reveal the entirety of Howard and his burgeoning influence on the Rockets offensively. His nine points, three rebounds and two assists were modest totals and represented a decline in each category from his 19-point, nine-rebound, three-assist debut in the preseason opener against the New Orleans Pelicans at Toyota Center.
But there was subtlety in his contributions, nuances that unfolded before observant eyes anxious to piece together the developing puzzle of how Howard meshes with his new teammates, a crew that scored deftly enough to finish sixth in the NBA in offensive rating last season.
For all of their scoring wiles the Rockets lacked enough of something to win five fewer games than their points differential suggested they should have won. It is easy to point to Howard and his three Defensive Player of the Year trophies and presume that his presence alone will counter many of the Rockets' deficiencies defensively.
However, the Rockets lacked ideal balance offensively, and Howard already has taken steps to showcase how his addition will positively influence what the Rockets aim to accomplish offensively even with numerous scoring options already in the fold.
Whether sprinting from the defensive end of the court to establish post position early in the shot clock or whipping outlet passes following defensive rebounds with unencumbered zeal, Howard possesses the raw athleticism to enable the Rockets to maintain their league-leading offensive pace. But the minutiae in his offensive game have been on display thus far through two preseason games, whether it was Howard finding open teammates behind the three-point line or delivering passes on a dime to wing players attacking the rim from the opposite side of the paint.
It requires both acumen and coordination to hit cutters in stride, and both Harden and Parsons already have enjoyed what Howard provides with his myriad talents. Both are so skilled at accelerating and finishing that accurate and daring passes should produce a world of possibilities at the rim.
Parsons was the beneficiary against the Pacers during one particular sequence when Howard assisted on a Parsons layup before darting across the lane and scoring on a nifty left-handed bank shot. Harden and Howard worked in concert against the Pelicans five nights earlier. And against the Pacers on Sunday in Taipei, the Rockets put up 107 points with the starters powering a 29-point first quarter.
"Last year we were looking for someone to feed the ball to and relieve some pressure off the guards," Harden said. "He's here now."
A Selfless Dwight Howard
As a willing and able post passer, Howard should embolden what is a selfless collection of scorers. Last season the Rockets ranked 10th in the NBA in assist percentage at 60.9 percent. Through three preseason games that figure stands at 65.5 percent, a number that would have paced the league just ahead of the Atlanta Hawks (65.1 percent), the Chicago Bulls (64.5 percent) and the spectacularly efficient San Antonio Spurs (64.1 percent).
Caution comes by way of sample size of course, but the eyeball test reveals what is possible with Howard at center.
The Rockets don't need to wait for Howard to initiate their offense. Fears of doing so were unfounded.
Against the Pelicans the starters accounted for 15 assists despite no one playing more than 29 minutes. Against the Pacers in Manila the starters totaled 13 assists with power forward Terrence Jones contributing zilch to that figure. In Taipei the starters produced 15 assists with Jeremy Lin the lone member to log 30-plus minutes. The combination of Harden, Howard and Parsons plus the point guard platoon of Lin and Patrick Beverley should yield gaudy assist totals this season.
"Once we get even more comfortable and we understand spacing even better, understanding when to screen and when to cut . . . just getting more familiar with each other will help," Parsons said.
"We've got guys that can score the basketball. We're not worried about that."
Three preseason games in and Parsons' proclamation rings true. The Rockets are still hoisting three-pointers with impunity (30-for-76), still getting to the charity stripe with regularity (92 free-throw attempts combined), and still running with abandon.
When Parsons assisted on an Omri Casspi layup mere seconds after the Pacers scored in the first half in Manila, it harkened to the Rockets alarming ability to answer made baskets on one end with layups on the other. The Rockets don't need to wait for Howard to initiate their offense. Fears of doing so were unfounded.
What the Rockets can bank on apparently is a fleet-footed center unselfish enough to make his teammates better and humble enough to heed the advice of Rockets coach Kevin McHale and Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon to utilize his quickness more often than his strength. Through two games Howard has offered a sneak peek of what's ahead, and the preview is tantalizing.
"We just have to learn how to play together, and that takes time," Howard said. "I'm just always talking to the guys and telling them that I'm looking for them. Be aware, and just be ready to make plays.
"I think we're going to be pretty good."