The Houston Rockets are in the middle of a three-team race for the last two playoff spots in the West, so they couldn't afford to lose to the lowly Phoenix Suns on Thursday if they wanted to keep pace with the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz. They started off well, dropping 39 points in the first quarter, but were outscored in the remaining three periods, including a 35-25 drubbing in the final frame that cost them the game.
Houston simply couldn't keep up on offense with Phoenix, despite 30 points and seven assists from James Harden. The biggest reason why is because its second star, Dwight Howard, only contributed 10 points in 30 minutes on the court and only pitched in one bucket in the crucial fourth quarter.
That type of performance is no longer surprising. Howard simply isn't a dominant offensive player anymore.
Howard's days as a featured post option are over
Howard is averaging his fewest points and field goal attempts per minute since his rookie year, and his free throw attempts are the least since his sophomore season. The percentage of unassisted buckets he's scored this season is even lower than it was with Mike D'Antoni's Los Angeles Lakers. Howard is having one of his most efficient shooting seasons in that reduced role and still defends at a high level, but the Rockets thought they were getting a superstar when they signed him, not a role player.
What happened to the bully who controlled the paint on both ends? He lost some of his power and athleticism and can't adjust.
Despite the popular narrative that suggests otherwise, Dwight still gets his touches on the block -- the most in the NBA, in fact, according to SportVU tracking stats. However, he's not efficient in such situations anymore because he turns the ball over at an obscene rate and can't hit free throws when fouled. Of the 40 players who averaged more than four post touches a game, Howard ranks 18th in points per touch. That's decent, but hardly elite. Too many of his post possessions don't end in points.
There are a lot of good defensive centers who can score as pick-and-roll dive men or after offensive rebounds, and Dwight is one of them. What made him a potent and unique offensive player, though, was that he could also score with his back to the basket, even if his moves weren't pretty. He's still average in that setting and a decent finisher in general, but he's no longer good enough offensively for a team to build its attack around him.
The skills he never developed are finally coming back to haunt him
Many of the big men who excel on offense nowadays have a jump shot. Howard was never going to develop one and that was fine. He was so powerful inside that he simply never needed that weapon to dominate. There were other skills, however, that he could have improved on to remain relevant after some of his strength and athleticism waned.
His free-throw shooting is what first comes to mind, and for good reason. Howard is actually having the worst year of his career from the free throw line. No one expected him to become a 70-percent shooter, but 49 percent is just unacceptable. That number has been trending down in his time in Houston, and if it continues to go in that trajectory, it could make him unplayable unless the league changes the rules regarding intentional fouling.
Yet his struggles from the line are not the only area in which Howard's growth stagnated. His passing is a huge problem that he never addressed. Howard never averaged three assists per 100 possessions -- this season alone, 19 big men have done that, six of which have used a lower percentage of possessions that he does.
When he can't score, Howard doesn't make much of an impact on offense. That's a problem now that his post game is not as deadly and his free-throw stroke has deteriorated. As the league moves into a direction in which every player has to be able to do a little bit of everything, Dwight seems stuck in the past.
Howard needs to find the right place -- and the right mindset -- to bounce back
It seems likely that Howard will leave Houston in free agency this summer. He was almost traded before the deadline, and the rumors about his rift with Harden are not going away. The Rockets have disappointed, so it makes sense for him to find a new team if the idea is to contend for a title. Luckily for him, he will become a free agent during a summer in which many franchises will have cap space to sign him.
But Howard must decide what kind of role he needs to play as he continues to age. He can embrace a reduced role and take less than maximum money to join a stacked team looking for a defensive anchor. If that happens, he could be a huge asset for a winner.
The other option is trying to recapture the old magic by finding a coach that still considers him a franchise player and is willing to accommodate the entire offense to suit his strengths, as Stan Van Gundy did in Orlando. He may find that more tempting, but if this season is any indication, the Dwight Howard that could dominate on both ends is gone and probably won't ever return.
The sooner Howard accepts that, the easier the transition to the new stage of his career will be.