The 80 games Dwight Howard spent under the glowing lights of Tinsel Town were a raging disappointment. Here was someone who was supposed to be the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; the next Shaquille O’Neal. He was supposed to lead the men in purple and gold to great things – championship things – alongside Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. Instead, all they had to show for it at the end of the 2012-2013 campaign was a long list of injuries, a 45-37 record and a first round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
It wasn’t necessarily all Dwight’s fault. He was recovering from back surgery at the time and took to the court way earlier than he should’ve. But the days of him living above the rim, gallivanting his way up and down the court, blocking every shot in sight seemed to be long gone. He was a shell of his former self, putting together his worst season since becoming an All-Star for the first time back in 2006-2007. It was sad to see someone – a five time member of the All-NBA First Team – struggle to do the things that made him so special. He wasn’t even a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, receiving less votes than 13 players including Avery Bradley, Chris Paul, Paul George, Larry Sanders, Tim Duncan and Tyson Chandler. Nevertheless, the Lakers fans treated him well, voting him in as a starter for the All-Star Game. Was he deserving of such an honor? No. But the fans got what they wanted.
When the season came to an end, Dwight opted to leave Los Angeles to pursue a ring elsewhere, and Houston was the place for him. With a max contract in hand, the “best big man in the game” had something to prove. Healthy again, he had to become his old Orlando self; the one who lead the Magic to a Finals birth back in 2009. While the media wouldn’t have their eye on him as much as they did during his short stint in the City of Angels, the pressure was on.
Dwight didn’t get off to the best of starts with the Rockets. In fact, it was kind of worrying. As I wrote in an article at the end of November, he had reverted back to his old habits – much to the disgust of Hakeem Olajuwon – and the results weren’t good. The Rockets weren’t skyrocketing their way up the Western Conference standings, and their big man didn’t look all that great. He couldn’t score in the post and was embarrassed a couple of times on national television, like when Andrea Bargnani looked like the second coming of Dikembe Mutumbo, holding Dwight to just seven points in one of his worst performances of the season.
But jump ahead several months and everything has changed. His statistics are nearly identical to last season’s, but the eye test offers a completely different experience. He’s getting the ball in the post and putting opposing centers in a spin cycle, beating them with his quick first step or using his brute strength to get right to the rim. He doesn’t look like an old, beaten down man, and he isn’t sauntering through games, taking what is given to him. He’s Dwight again, albeit with some minor changes in the athleticism department. Instead of looking like a dominant force once or twice a week as he did with the Lakers, he’s asserting himself on both ends of the court on a nightly basis, which is a sight for sore eyes.
It’s no real secret that the Rockets are better when they feed Dwight in the post. Since the start of the New Year, they are 8-1 in games where Dwight takes more than 14 shots. He’s also averaging 20.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.1 steals per game in that span, which is more along the lines of what he was putting up as a member of the Magic. When James Harden had to sit out a few games earlier this year due to injury, Chandler Parsons said that the Rockets have a, “more balanced attack” when their leading scorer is not around. The reason: they play less iso-ball. Playing through Dwight leads to easier looks at the basket, as well as more open looks on the perimeter. The ball movement is better, people don’t just stand around and their offense clicks because teams have to pick their poison: let Dwight operate one-on-one and risk him having his way in the paint or to leave a multitude of outside shooters open in their sweet spots.
Even if the Lakers had built their offense in a similar way to how Kevin McHale has, it’s unlikely they would’ve seen the same results. After all, Dwight struggled mightily to score in half-court sets last season and they just didn’t have the right personnel to play to his strengths. Take this play as an example:
Four Suns in the paint. No floor spacing. No kick out. Tough shot. Miss.
Now look at this:
With a small lineup of Harden, Parsons, Beverley and Garcia, the Kings can’t help off their players, so Dwight is left with all the room in the world to operate on the low block. To that, he takes one dribble to the paint, turns over his right shoulder, throws up a sweeping hook and kisses it in off the glass.
The All-Star Game is a popularity vote and over the last few years, Dwight’s stock has dropped tremendously.
It’s safe to say that a lot of that has to do with what went on with the Lakers last season. After all, it was ugly. People were thrown under the bus, Dwight was visibly pissed off, there was no chemistry, there were trade demands and to be perfectly honest, he just wasn’t that good. But this year has been a different story. Had Dwight been voted in as a starter, people wouldn’t have voiced their anger like they did last season. He’s been more efficient, more dominant and more like the Dwight of old. And to that, I say this: Welcome back, Dwight. We’ve missed you.