Rockets center Dwight Howard has stayed on message from the moment he first arrived in Houston last July through the Rockets' push past the quarter pole of the 2013-14 season.
He came burdened by a toxic reputation concocted with equal parts immaturity and selfishness. Howard failed to thrive in his lone season in Los Angeles despite being teamed with a trio of future Hall of Famers, bolting the Lakers after reportedly complaining about the offense of coach Mike D'Antoni. Over the prior two seasons Howard exhibited such corrosive behavior that the reservoir of goodwill he constructed via his affability in Orlando crumbled, and naysayers questioned aloud whether he would fit with the Rockets and their fast-paced style of play.
But at his introduction Howard committed to winning over scoring, and he has yet to deviate from that pledge. Before the Rockets embarked on a three-game swing through Portland, Golden State and Sacramento, which begins Thursday night, Howard reiterated that mantra. If the Rockets are to triumph during this regular season and beyond, sacrifice must be their hallmark — Howard included.
Howard is averaging 17.0 points per game, his lowest output since his age-20 season with the Magic in 2005-06.
"The biggest thing with a young team is everybody has to understand it’s all about winning," Howard says. "It doesn’t matter who scores the points, who gets the rebounds — whatever. It’s all about winning. If we all win, it makes everything better."
Forget the new fascination with Howard's sugar craze — a habit he's essentially already kicked — this willingness to sacrifice is the real story of the Rockets' season.
Skepticism abounds over just how sincerely Howard wants to win at the expense of his perceived greatness. However, 22 games into his first season in Houston, Howard is playing the role of selfless superstar deftly. A cursory glance at his offensive numbers suggests that Howard has been negatively impacted by this union, losing shots to another superstar (James Harden) and a tandem of slashing scorers (Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin) so skilled at penetrating the lane and scoring at the rim that opportunities for a traditional post player are mildly restricted.
Howard is averaging 17.0 points per game, his lowest output since his age-20 season with the Magic in 2005-06. He is taking just 10.2 shots per game, equal to his average number of field goal attempts from 2009-10, the lone season during a five-year stretch in which Howard did not score at least 20.6 points per game. Speculation remains rampant that Howard, while healthier than he was during his lost season in Los Angeles, is not the same player he was physically from his days in Orlando, a theory that might be at the root of his declining efficiency.
When Howard took just 10.2 shots per game four years ago, he led the league by shooting 61.2 percent. With the Rockets, Howard is shooting 55.6 percent, his worst since his second season with the Magic and far off the pace from his prime years in Orlando. Between 2007-12, Howard averaged 20.6 points on 59.0 percent shooting and 12.2 attempts per game. Magic possessions ended with the ball in his hands 25.5 percent of the time during that five-year stretch as Howard matured and developed legitimate post moves to complement his rim assaults.
Playing alongside Harden, Parsons and Lin, Howard has produced a usage rate of 23.5 percent, a two-percent drop that marries well with his decline in average field goal attempts. But his relative inefficiency at scoring in the paint below the foul circle is somewhat mystifying. Howard is shooting 58.0 percent in that quadrant compared to 62.9 percent during his Orlando prime. That decrease in percentage can be attributed in part to the Rockets' reliance upon post-ups instead of pick-and-rolls, at which Howard excels, but that merely scratches the surface.
Of late, Rockets coach Kevin McHale has been hammering home the need to get Howard more involved offensively despite the fact the Rockets rank second in the NBA in offensive rating (107.8 points per 100 possessions) and third in effective field goal percentage at 54.0 percent. The Rockets have been exceptional offensively, yet McHale maintains macro-view concerns.
"I don’t look really so much at his shot attempts; I look at how many times he handles the ball, even on the perimeter," the coach says. "Getting it, passing it, moving, we’ve got to make sure that we keep Dwight involved. I think there are still a lot of times where we can hit him on the roll in those little pocket areas.
"We’ve got to be aware of getting it to him or taking extra dribbles and try to get it high to the rim which James is very good at, letting him follow in there for some alley-oop dunks. We’re getting better at finding him and trying to keep him involved."
And, there is some deception in the aforementioned averages. Because the Rockets have been so dominate at home — their net rating at Toyota Center of 11.2 points ranks third in the NBA — Howard is playing just 33.4 minutes per game, his lowest amount of court time since his rookie season (32.6 minutes). Per 36 minutes, Howard is averaging 18.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks with the Rockets, numbers that compare favorably with his eight seasons in Orlando (18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes).
Howard is averaging a career-high 1.9 assists per 36 minutes this season, a statistic that confirms what McHale theorized on what happens when the Rockets make concerted efforts to feed the ball to Howard down low.
"He passes the ball," McHale says. "There are a lot of times he gets it down there and he passes. I think getting him involved means when he’s open get him the ball, cut off of him, let him make passes, let him make plays. Let him touch the ball down there.
"He’s getting fouled so much, too. I think the big thing that I really want out of Dwight, which he’s done the last few games, is just hammer the offensive glass. He’s such a great rebounder, he’s such a strong guy and he’s got good feet that he gets in there and just pounds the offensive glass. He’s doing a better job of that."
Dwight Howard's Big Man Game
Howard continues to lead the league in free-throw attempts, something he has done four times previously, with 222. His offensive rebound rate of 14.0 percent represents a career high. His ability to create second-chance points for himself and his teammates combined with opposing teams' willingness to send him to the charity stripe provides Howard opportunities to scavenge points beyond traditional offensive sets. And for all that Howard has provided the Rockets on the glass and defensively, any decline in offensive production pales in comparison.
Entering league games Wednesday night, Howard ranked third in rebounding (13.2 per game) and rebound rate (22.1 percent), and first overall in rebounds per 36 minutes. Howard is averaging fewer than two blocks per 36 minutes for the first time since 2006-07, but the Rockets are seventh in defensive rating at 100.0 points per 100 possessions. Last season the Rockets were 16th in defensive rating (103.5 points/100 possessions).
"He’s got so many unique things to him. We’ve got to incorporate all of that into our offense."
Howard deserves some credit for that leap, even if the Rockets are better offensively and worse defensively with him on the court.
With 60 games remaining in the regular season, the Rockets have ample time to tie up their loose ends on offense, to better determine where players like the ball, how to play more effectively inside-out, and when to play with an accelerated pace. Howard has been steadfast in his willingness to let those nuances develop, and his focus remains honed on team success.
McHale, conversely, sees all that his All-NBA center has to offer and longs for the day when the Rockets can effectively exploit everything that Howard can provide on the offensive end.
"I still think that what makes him unique is his offensive rebounding, his ability to roll and see a seam and get in there (where a teammate can) throw a pass that a lot of guys couldn’t catch he goes up and gets it and dunks it," McHale says.
"He’s got so many unique things to him. We’ve got to incorporate all of that into our offense and our guys learning how to play with him."