This season is huge for the Houston Rockets and Dwight Howard on two planes. One has to do with the franchise, mentioned as a title contender for the first time in a very long while. The second has to do with Dwight Howard himself, in somewhat of a redemption season.
Not that 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game are bad, but it was a significant offensive drop from his seasons at Orlando (although it’s understandable considering he played with Kobe Bryant). However, it wasn’t the numbers that brought over all the criticism, but the attitude.
Next to Bryant and Gasol, everyone seems like a clown. But Howard is about winning, even if he’s all smiles while doing so. No one ever called him or referred to him as anything but serious as he led the Orlando Magic two consecutive seasons to the Eastern Conference final, including the NBA finals in 2009. It’s all a matter of perception, but as we saw Howard ditch the Lakers after their poor of misguided efforts of keeping him, he cares about that too.
Houston is going to be a different story. The expectations are high, but not like in LA. There’s a ball-hogging shooting guard, James Harden, but he isn’t an indispensable piece of the franchise that the local media support no matter what like Kobe Bryant, who has somewhat of a god-like status in Southern California, as long as they’re winning at least.
Omer Asik isn’t Pau Gasol – he is Howard’s substitute, and in any case, we won’t see a system like D’Antoni’s that forced Gasol into unhappiness by being something he really isn’t. Jeremy Lin isn’t Steve Nash, but there are those who believe he can be not too far from now, with the right opportunity. Maybe with a big man of Howard’s quality, it’s going to become a bit more easy to see.
But the question of whether Howard still is or no longer is the best center in the NBA will probably be answered as well. Up until two years ago it wasn’t even a question worth asking. In 2011-2012 the rise of Andrew Bynum made people start to ask that question, at least when talking about offense. This year? Howard couldn’t be any less popular, and while there isn’t a clear candidate to replace him at the top, people aren’t mentioning him as the clear number one anymore.
And it’s up to Howard, more than anyone else. If he continues to be the man who refuses or tries to avoid pick & roll plays and is stuck in the low post without adding the right kind of moves to his game, the same problems from last season will come up, even though Howard wasn’t as bad down low as some might think.
His defense? It wasn’t perfect, but the Rockets have younger legs than what the Lakers had to keep the perimeter a little less like a Swiss cheese. James Harden needs to work on his effort on D, while Jeremy Lin is still trying to work his way out of the stigma that he’s terrible on defense, but if Howard is 100% healthy, it shouldn’t be that much of a problem to look more dominant in the paint than he did last season.
There are many factors to the Rockets’ future success – next season and in the following years with a core that looks quite capable of doing big things in the playoffs. The most important of them is Howard, and his ability to be the player he was before his back injury over a year ago in Orlando.