Dwight Howard returned to the Rockets’ starting lineup Wednesday night in New Orleans after a right knee injury sidelined him for a two-month stretch. Daryl Morey’s $21 million center returned with a minute restriction, but he definitely made the most of his time on court. The first Houston basket was a soaring, one-handed tomahawk by D12, and the veteran spent the rest of his 16 minutes hawking defensive rebounds, turning away a shot attempt and making the ball appear to be the size of a grapefruit and his jersey the size of a bib. More importantly, he contributed in a road win over a Western Conference team vying for a playoff spot.
“I didn’t want to get in the way of anything,” Howard said to the Houston Chronicle after Wednesday’s game. “I know how they’ve been playing. My thing is just setting good screens, making sure I get into the right spots. I know the offense will come. I just wanted to get my wind back.”
Howard raises a notable concern: Can his return actually get in the way of Houston’s success? Ostensibly, the concern sounds ludicrous — Howard is former Defensive Player of the Year who has had coaches fawn over his ceiling-less potential since he entered the league, a man once considered the best center in the league, whose defensive prowess terrified opponents into shooting less around the rim — what renowned NBA analyst Kirk Goldsberry coined the Dwight Effect.
Yet Howard’s production has tapered off, if only slightly; he has battled recurring injuries and posted less-than-spellbinding stretches of games that turned into months. He no longer has the Tune Squad-talent that molded his Superman persona; that’s what injuries and age will do to a seven-footer.
Most Valuable Player candidate James Harden filled up box scores in his absence, leading the team to a 17-9 record since he last played, which, while not unblemished, is pretty absurd considering Howard has been the defensive linchpin on nearly every team he’s played for.
Since coming to the Rockets, Howard has had a substantial impact on the team’s offense. Although the sample size is marginal, the Rockets are over two points better per 100 possessions with him on the court; the team was nearly four points better per 100 possessions with him on the court a season ago.
Opponents have seen mixed results from Howard’s presence on the court this season. Teams are four points per 100 possessions better when Howard is off the court.
Ultimately, whatever changes are made to Houston’s blueprint with Howard now available will take time to manifest. He has already been a member of Kevin McHale’s system long enough that this change won’t have a reinventing-the-offensive-or-defensive-wheel effect; he’ll be used on high pick-and-roll sets constantly, open even more space for Harden to attack the basket, and free up opportunities in the paint for Josh Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, Joey Dorsey and Terrence Jones.
The Rockets attempted 22 three-pointers in Wednesday’s win, 11 short of the league-leading 33 they attempt per game. That likely had more to do with the team shooting below 30 percent on those attempts than it did with Howard’s return.
Houston has a top-eight scoring offense that’s among the league’s best in facilitating. That isn’t going to spontaneously combust. If anything, it’d be interesting to note the advancements made without him on the court, in terms of production from Houston’s frontcourt. Teams no longer confuse Motiejunas with a dish detergent salesman; he’s something of a formidable scoring threat.
The most noticeable progression for Houston will be found on the defensive glass; Houston ranks No. 21 in the NBA with just under 32 defensive boards per game. It’s also an area where Howard is particularly proficient, having averaged more than eight defensive rebounds per game every year since his rookie season.
Howard’s offensive approach will continue to perfectly coincide with the Moreyball approach of three-point attempts (Howard likely will take none of those) and shots from the restricted area.
The bigger obstacle to hurdle for Houston is life without Patrick Beverley for the foreseeable future. Playing with the Ancient Corpse of Jason Terry won’t be easy, but plugging a former perennial all-star that’s capable of pouring in monthly double-double stretches into the post should certainly help in the process. Howard is the rim protector the Rockets sorely need to match up with the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies-style teams come postseason time. With home-court advantage in their sights and Howard back to form, the Rockets look like an arduous task for any opponent the rest of the way.