One of the more missable stories of the NBA season has been Dwight Howard’s absence from the Houston Rockets’ lineup. The former three-time Defensive Player of the Year has suited up for just 32 contests this year, owing his most recent stint of missed games to a knee injury.
He claims getting back into shape hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk. "We did some extremely tough workouts on the treadmill. Anytime anyone says treadmill, I lose it," Howard said. "I don't think anybody understands what they had me doing on the treadmill. I was just begging them: 'Can I just play so I don't have to do this?' Rehab is harder than the actual practice and all of that stuff."
The Rockets, somehow, have managed to be quite an effective defensive team without their best linchpin. Ranking third in defensive efficiency, they’ve improved on the perimeter and seen surprisingly good work from Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones down low. Houston’s gone 15-8 since Dwight was last called out, and it has a lot to do with James Harden’s MVP-worthy play.
Howard’s acclimation period back into the lineup will likely come with some growing pains, but having him on the last line of their defense most assuredly makes them an even scarier team. He also missed significant time down the stretch of last season, only to return and play some of the best basketball of his life in a first round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
The progressive Rockets seem to be handling Howard with safety gloves as he ages, preserving his increasingly problematic body through the regular season and making sure he’s fresh for when the games really matter. It’s a smart strategy, and it could be the key to a dark horse title run this spring.
— John Wilmes