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Eventually finding Rockets, Dwight Howard finds redemption

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

Howard is once again one of the best in the league. (USATSI)
Dwight Howard is once again one of the best in the league. (USATSI)

Dwight Howard doesn't have much credit with the NBA world.

When we were obsessed/bombarded with the lack of certainty in Howard's future, he was at a disadvantage. Part of that disadvantage was a world created by LeBron James' free agency process in 2010 and backlash in anticipation of a repeat of such a debacle was an obstacle for Howard to overcome. The bigger part of that disadvantage was Howard himself, failing to learn from the mistakes of stars past. Fans and media, fair or not, wanted more humility out of NBA stars. They wanted people to go against the grain of what James had just done.

Howard didn't seem to do that. If anything, he made it worse because of the path he chose to take. While struggling with the decision to stay in Orlando where he did genuinely love playing or choosing to move on to bigger and more fruitful markets, Howard seemed to take a bad step everywhere he went. Rumors flooded the media about what he wanted, where he wanted to be, and what he wanted the Orlando Magic to do.

There was the awkward incident involving Stan Van Gundy, reporters, and Dwight getting caught in a lie. When he was finally traded to the Los Angeles Lakers before last season, it was supposed to solve everything. Instead, it created different drama. He battled with Kobe Bryant. He battled with his own injuries. He wasn't the effective player we had seen in the past. He was an albatross and had people wondering if his suffering production and impact were still more valuable than the problems his personality seemed to create on and off the court.

Once he signed with the Houston Rockets in the summer, his future was set. There were no more questions about where he'd be or who would be playing with him in the future. He had James Harden as the leader on offense and his job was to be the leader on defense. What we've seen from Howard is a reestablishment of his impact as one of the top players in the NBA.

From 2008 to 2012, Howard was one of the five best players in the NBA. He ruled the defensive end of the floor and was good enough on offense to help lead an Orlando Magic team that was one of the best offenses in the league. They used him to draw in the attention of the defense and then bombard their opponents with outside shooting. In Houston, we've seen a very similar attack, except Harden has replaced Jameer Nelson as the main initiator of the offense.

The results have been spectacular. The Houston defense has plenty of holes with a myriad of mediocre defenders. It's the job of Howard, Chandler Parsons, and Patrick Beverley to buoy the defense and make it good enough to help the consistent outside attack the Rockets utilize to disorient your defense. They keep the defense honest with plenty of set-ups inside for Howard, reminding you the rim is under attack and you need to scramble to cover everything.

Howard still has his issues but they seem less apparent at the moment as Houston fights for prime playoff seeding and positioning. His post game would look better if his touch around the rim was better. His free throw shooting isn't below 50 percent like we saw for two years as he tried to recover from a back injury, but 54.7 percent from the line still isn't good enough to abolish the Hack-a-Howard or Smite-a-Dwight strategies. He still turns the ball over more than you'd like, due to issues fighting for position in the post and some ball control lapses.

But the impact felt by Howard on the court is what has made the Rockets begin to resemble a title contender for the first time in 20 years. They're not the Hakeem Olajuwon-led teams of the mid-90's -- and he's certainly not Dream-esque -- but this Rockets team is flourishing in their first year with Howard and Harden side by side. With very little time to establish a continuity and chemistry with everybody, the Rockets still find themselves 44-20 and in possession of the 4-seed in the ultra competitive West.

The Rockets are on pace to have their third most successful regular season in franchise history. They have the addition of Howard to thank for that. His averages of 18.7 points and 12.4 rebounds are really good. His field goal percentage of 58.5 is excellent. Numbers like that have only happened three times in the last five seasons. It was Howard each time. The Rockets possess the ninth best defense in the NBA at 102.1 points per 100 possessions given up.

When Howard is on the floor, that number is around 101.6, 1.8 points per 100 possessions better than when he's on the bench. The offense also benefits from him being on the court, 4.6 points higher. However, Howard doesn't seem to be getting the credit owed to him for Houston's great play and his own resurgence.

Part of that is possibly the fear of feeding his ego once again, something that seemed out of control in his last days in Orlando and his brief stint at Staples Center. Howard's credit has suffered over the past few years, going from a budding star that was under covered and not focused on enough to someone who was oversaturating the news cycle and finding a way to shove both feet into his mouth at the same time.

Maybe it's a good thing he's resembling the storyline we saw in Houston as he tries to build his credit back up with the public and the media. He's back being one of the top players in the league, even if nobody wants to admit at the moment. He has to earn back the NBA world's fandom. The best way to do that is to turn the Rockets into a title contender, like we saw him do with the Magic a few years ago.

 
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