Dwight Howard is possibly the most important player for the Houston Rockets next year. Howard has seemingly gotten the short end of the stick for a while now, as many fans have taken a liking to criticizing the Rockets’ starting center. There is no question that Dwight Howard is one of the best players in the league, and definitely one of the top centers. No other center brings the athleticism that Howard brings and no other center is as well balanced in his production like Howard is.
He has not, however, played his best basketball for the past three seasons with the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, and it’s the reason why Howard has come under fire the past couple of seasons for underperforming. It certainly doesn’t help that just about everybody is frustrated with his free throw percentage.
Those throwing Howard under the bus have a legitimate claim; Howard’s number have taken a very big, very noticeable dive from his prime Orlando days. It seems like he plays uninspired at times, and legitimately bad at others. Here are the stats from the 2007-08 season to last year:
Let’s take a quick look at his advanced stats from that time period as well:
An offensive dip was to be expected; Howard went from being the clear No. 1 option in Orlando, to being the second option behind two ball-dominant guards in Kobe Bryant and James Harden. Naturally, his touches would diminish, as would his points per game. His points per game production is not the problem, and neither is his field goal percentage; it’s his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) that needs go up.
His career high of 26.1 was second in the league that year, behind LeBron James, and was most certainly worthy of MVP consideration. Since then, however, it’s declined, even going below 20 in 2012, which did not rank within the top 20.
His field goal percentage isn’t what’s causing the dip; his free throw percentage is the main culprit. It’s very strange to see a player’s free throw percentage dip by 10 percent for two whole years, even for a center. A 60 percent mark is solid enough to keep the Hack-A-Dwight strategy at bay, if only for a little while, but 50 percent is most definitely not.
While he did manage to increase that percentage by five percent last year, it’s still a really bad percentage that teams will happily exploit until he starts making them. We know he can do better (before 2011, he shot a career 60 percent from there), and that might be what’s so frustrating about it. The team’s offense would greatly benefit from a Dwight Howard who can hit 60 percent of those free throws.
Howard’s woes from the charity stripe are not the most concerning part; his diminishing defense is. I don’t think anybody expected his defensive production to nosedive as it has, and it’s really surprising to see Howard go from 7.7 Defensive Win Shares in Orlando to 4.1 with the Rockets last year. His defense has been on a very steady decline since 2010, getting worse each season. It’s a big reason as to why Howard isn’t worth double digit Win Shares like he was in the past. This team, as currently constructed, will need to be extremely reliant on Howard to clean the defensive glass and to make up for defensive miscues.
While Howard is still an elite rebounding presence, he hasn’t exactly been doing a stellar job cleaning up the perimeter’s sub-par defense, not like in years past. His mere presence will still alter some shooting motions and shots, but he’s noticeably late on more and more rotations than before. As a result, he’s blocking less shots (his 4.0 percent block percentage was his lowest since 2005-2006) and allowing more baskets in the paint.
It’s not fair to only blame Howard since the Rockets allowed a lot of dribble penetration last season, and Howard can only clean up so much if the rotations aren’t good. There were quite a few times where Howard was left on an island trying to defend two players because of late, or never arriving, rotations. The rotations for the Rockets need to improve to help Howard improve his defensive production. If the Rockets want him to regress back to the norm and completely dominate games on the defensive end, they have to help him out a little bit. They will need it because without a prime Dwight Howard, this team will go nowhere in the West.
If Howard can lower his Defensive Rating (DRtg) into the 90s range, and increase his Defensive Win Shares (DWS) above 6.0, Houston will have a legitimate chance to go far in the playoffs. Should Howard falter, the Rockets may not even make the playoffs in the ridiculously stacked Western Conference.