Year In Review: Dwight Howard
Reflecting upon Dwight Howard's past, present and future following the 2013-14 campaign
When signing a seven-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner, it goes without saying that expectations for said player are going to be enormous. On July 13, 2013, the city of Houston welcomed Dwight Howard to town with a massive downtown rally that reflected not just the excitement and anticipation of his arrival, but also the massive things that were to be expected of him going forward. He was deemed the next big thing, joining a long lineage of Hall of Fame big men who have called Houston home. Nothing less that excellence would do.
Nothing less than excellence was delivered.
Howard met those lofty expectations head on and came through with a season that reaffirmed his place among the NBA elite. Almost across the board, the 28-year-old put up numbers during the 2013-14 campaign that fell right in line with his career averages, per-minute stats, and advanced metrics that figure to one day ensure a spot will be carved out for him in Springfield alongside the rest of the Rockets’ legendary big men of years gone by. In short, he was everything Houston had hoped he would be.
When the playoffs arrived and the stakes were subsequently raised, Howard took him game to new heights. He shouldered a bigger load offensively than he previously had during much of the regular season and responded with eye-popping production: 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. His efficiency when operating out of the low-post skyrocketed. He finished with the highest postseason PER of his career (27.2). Yes, the Rockets’ run was ultimately cut short by the Trail Blazers’ buzz saw. But Howard’s heavy lifting throughout left little doubt that Houston’s center position is in the best of hands once again.
Goodness, where to even begin with this one? Pick a game, any game, against Portland – The Blazers had no answer for Howard during the regular season, either, as he averaged more than 25 points, 13 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game during their four meetings. He also dominated Dallas (season averages: 24 and 12) and San Antonio (17.8 points and 16 boards per contest) on a regular basis.
But from the standpoint of pure, visceral beastliness, nothing tops the 35-point, 19-rebound, five-assist and 3-block detonation he dropped on Detroit back on December 21. Making that performance all the more impressive was the fact that Howard led Houston to a 114-97 drubbing of the Pistons on a night when the Rockets were missing James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, and then lost Patrick Beverley before halftime with a fractured right hand. The Rockets needed something special from their big man that evening and Howard more than delivered the goods, schooling the Pistons’ frontcourt with a style that was equal parts skill and playground bullying.
THE NEXT STEP
At this point in his illustrious career, the vast majority of Howard’s improvements must be made along the margins. This past season saw him return to the explosive, physically overpowering monster he had been prior to suffering the back and shoulder injuries that hampered him during the 2012-13 campaign. Maintaining and building upon that progress will obviously be a must. Howard also boosted his free throw percentage (.547) to a better place than it had been in previous years, though there’s obviously still room for improvement there. The fact that he knocked down more than 62 percent of his freebies in the playoffs provides reason to believe he’s plenty capable of taking that step.
Then there are the subtle improvements that figure to come with additional experience and familiarity within the Rockets’ system and schemes. As Howard grows more comfortable with where his teammates are and will be, and as his awareness increases regarding double-teams and where they’re coming from, he’ll progress as a playmaker capable of picking out flashing cutters and wide-open spot-up shooters on the weak-side. It takes time to acquire such instincts. As a point of reference: Hakeem Olajuwon’s assist rate experienced a major spike in his ninth NBA season, culminating with a career-high mark in his 12th pro campaign. Howard, especially on this uber-talented Rockets team, is capable of demonstrating similar growth.