Dwight Howard knows the landscape in Houston has shifted in his absence, with each 40-point effort carrying James Harden deeper into the MVP conversation and each win lifting the Rockets closer to home-court advantage in the playoffs. There was no way for things to remain as they were, not when Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik departed last summer and not when Howard, one-half of Houston’s superstar duo, has missed months this season due to a right knee injury.
As inevitable as this change was, as necessary as Harden’s emergence has been for Houston, it’s understandably been a bit disorienting. One minute, Howard is riding eight straight All-Star appearances and averaging 26 points and 13.7 rebounds in the 2014 playoffs. The next, he’s stuck on the bench game after game, wearing loud jackets and marveling at Harden’s career year while trying to make sense of where he fits going forward.
Wednesday night marked Howard’s much-anticipated return to the court, as he logged 16 minutes against the Pelicans, marking his first action since Jan. 23. A day later, Howard reflected on what’s needed of him with the playoffs just a few weeks away, now that there’s no longer any question Harden is the alpha dog of the team.
“To be honest, it has been a little tough,” Howard told SI.com during a phone interview from Houston on Thursday. “I sat back and analyzed everything, and [Hall of Fame Rockets center] Elvin Hayes called me one day. He said, ‘For this team to win, you really have to make that ultimate sacrifice.’ I didn’t quite get it at first, but I think I really understand it now better than before.
"It’s not like I haven’t done it in the past, but this year is a little different. That sacrifice for me is going to come on the offensive end. It’s the thing I saw Wilt [Chamberlain] do when he got his championship with the Lakers [in 1972]. Wilt was known for scoring a lot of points, and when he played for that team that won the championship, he got other people open shots, did whatever he could to make everybody better. He got that trophy. By the time we get to the playoffs and the next couple of years, hopefully we’ll get to the point where we’ll be able to win a couple championships.”
It’s worth noting that Chamberlain was 35 during that title season, nearly a decade removed from his record-setting 50 points per game campaign. Howard, meanwhile, just turned 29 in December, but is easily forgiven for looking ahead with a wide-angle view. He’s now four years removed from his own peak scoring season, when he averaged 22.9 points per game in 2011, and he hasn’t advanced in the playoffs since 2010. Multiple years spent hopping from coast to coast and battling injuries—first the back, then the labrum, now the knee—can give you a new outlook on life.
Howard has been to a Finals, won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and more than delivered on his No. 1 overall pick status, but there’s still been a nagging sense of unfulfilled expectations, a feeling that gets reinforced every time Howard gets critiqued by Shaquille O’Neal or jabbed by former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant. He's in an unenviable position: injuries have limited him, he's easily portrayed as a ring-chaser whose mission backfired and his naturally upbeat personality is out of step with NBA superstar conventions.
The pressure to win is ever-present for Howard, but Harden's breakout makes his current predicament that much more complicated. Without Howard for most of the season, Harden's scoring (27.1 points per game, No. 2 in the NBA), shot attempts (18.1 per game), No. 1 and usage rate (31.2, No. 7) have all increased compared to last season. Houston boasts a 48-23 record, good for No. 3 in the West, and it went 17-9 during its most recent stretch without Howard. Although the Rockets' offense has slipped from its top-five ranking in 2013-14, it still remains above-average thanks largely to Harden's brilliance on the ball, which has produced a league-leading eight 40-point games.
Given these trends, the last thing that Howard wants to be viewed as is a disruption. Prior to returning this week, Howard met with Harden to stress exactly that point.
“To me, James has been the MVP, considering the fact that I’ve missed the whole season basically and we’re third in the West,” Howard said. “I told James that the MVP is his for the taking. I want him to go out there and dominate and play hard every night, lead this team. I told him to destroy every opponent that’s in front of him. I will do whatever I have to do to: score, rebound, whatever. I don’t want him to change up anything. That was my message to him.”
One wonders how much Howard's sentiment is shaped by his experiences with Bryant during and after the Lakers' ill-fated, injury-plagued 2012-13 season.
The push-me, pull-you between the two Lakers stars was reported as a daily drama. They never quite found the right balance on offense, the right connection in the locker room, or the right timeline for a succession plan. Bryant told USA Today Sports as recently as last month that he believed Howard was “uncomfortable” with Bryant’s “combative” approach to winning.
Howard disputes this version of events, instead pointing out that poor health sabotaged the season.
“It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable with who [Bryant] was as a player or a person, that was never the issue to me,” Howard said. “I think that kind of gets twisted because of how things ended up. Everybody on that team got injured. I think we had five games together before somebody was injured. … I didn’t have an issue back then how Kobe was. Kobe wanted to win as badly as I did. Our personalities are different. I’m not a guy who is going to go off on my teammates. I tried that approach and for me it didn’t work. For Kobe, it works. He’s won a couple championships. He’s also played with some great talent. For the most part, it just wasn’t the time for us to win.”
One need look no further than Howard’s confrontation with Bryant on opening night to understand the tension between the two players remains. On one point, however, they are in full agreement: basketball players need not be friends to win.
“You don’t have to be best friends as basketball players but I do believe in chemistry,” Howard said. “I think it makes everything different if a team is really together and they’re all on that same page. They might not like each other, per se, but if you’re on the same page and the chemistry is there, you can play great basketball. You can go back to teams like Detroit, the Bad Boys. Those guys had great chemistry, that’s why they won.”
From the outside looking in, Houston’s chemistry is about as good as can reasonably be expected right now, given multiple injuries to key players (Howard, Patrick Beverley, and Terrence Jones, among others) and multiple midseason roster additions (Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, and Pablo Prigioni). Despite a fast-paced approach and a makeshift undersized frontline, Houston ranks No. 4 in defensive efficiency this season, up from No. 12 in 2013-14. Howard credits his teammates’ improved focus and communication, citing how Houston’s defenders “sit down” deep into their stances when defending ball-handlers.
So, the question becomes again, how does Howard fit back into all of this? And has he applied lessons from his experiences with Bryant so he can manage his ongoing relationship with Harden?
“We’re not super close but we do talk, we sit down, we have conversations,” Howard said of Harden. “I’ve never had any issue with James. The biggest reason for me to come to Houston was to play alongside James. I knew I made [the right decision] when I first made it, watching him play and now how he’s grown as a player and a person. It’s great to watch. I came to win. There’s no ego with me, it’s not about me. It’s about us, what we can do together. I’ve won all the individual awards, besides the MVP, and at this point all that stuff is irrelevant. What’s more important is us coming together to win a championship.
Before Houston can start thinking about a title—the franchise has won two previous championships, in 1994 and 1995—it must first win a playoff series. The Rockets have advanced out of the first round just once since 1997, and they exited in heartbreaking fashion last year, thanks to a buzzer-beating, game-winning, series-clinching three-pointer from Blazers guard Damian Lillard in Game 6.
Houston had home-court advantage in that series, and was widely expected to advance. The defeat left Howard searching for answers in the immediate aftermath, telling reporters at Portland's Moda Center that the Rockets had just received a reminder about the importance of every individual possession. The loss caused GM Daryl Morey to embark on an offseason overhaul that included trading Jeremy Lin to the Lakers, shipping OmerAsik to the Pelicans for a draft pick, replacing Chandler Parsons with Trevor Ariza, and adding a number of veterans with the goal of improving the roster's depth. The loss also led to speculation about coach Kevin McHale’s future, a topic that was later put to bed when Houston offered him a contract extension back in December.
Howard also paints that playoff series loss, his first with Harden, as something of a bonding moment. While Howard mostly had his way against Portland, posting at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in all six games, Harden struggled, shooting 37.6 overall, 29.6 percent from deep and committing 3.5 turnovers per game.
“James is playing redemption basketball,” Howard said. “We had a long talk, a couple of talks actually, after the playoffs. What I tried to do was motivate him to show the world how great of a player he is. He’s taken on that attitude from the beginning of the year. He’s out to show everybody.”
The Rockets’ roster composition still demands that Howard get back to an elite level, too. There seems no doubt that this group, if healthy, is indeed deeper and more talented than the 2013-14 Rockets, but Houston’s shot at competing with the likes of Golden State, Memphis and San Antonio relies on Howard making a major impact. Howard is averaging 15.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks this season, all down from last year, but his +6.9 net rating is tops among Rockets with at least 1,000 minutes logged and he improves Houston's defensive rating by nearly four points (from 101.2 to 97.3) when he's on the court. What's more, when Harden and Howard are on the court together, Houston boasts a formidable +9.9 net rating (107.6 offensive, 97.7 defensive).
Eyeing those numbers, it's easy to imagine an alternate universe where, with a healthy Howard all year long, Houston would find itself firmly in the championship contenders discussion rather than its current status as a fringe threat.
“It’s great that everybody [in the media] is talking about everybody else,” Howard said, referring to the West’s other powers. “We have 10 guys on our team that can rotate in and out. From one through five, we can switch pick and rolls. We present a lot of defensive matchups that can cause problems for anybody. … Everybody is on the same page, we’ve got some great veterans, along with myself. We really want to win. I feel like we can make a really deep run this year. I think we have an excellent opportunity in front of us to win a championship.”
Reaching those goals will require cooperation from a right knee that swelled up earlier this year and required an injection back in February. One game into his return, Howard says he feels “really, really good” and that he is “pretty much” 100 percent healthy after missing two months. Houston’s plan is to limit his minutes and ramp up his workload over the final 11 games, and he hasn't yet experienced any complications or setbacks. That approach is designed to limit the “stress” placed on Howard’s right leg and knee in the short term, knowing that much will be asked of him during the postseason.
While sidelined, Howard kept busy with his “Breathe Again” campaign, preaching togetherness and positivity while encouraging children to limit the potential for violent confrontations by avoiding instinctive reactions. Inspired by the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown incidents, Howard has held events in Texas, California, Georgia and Oregon, while also partnering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
The basketball stakes pale in comparison to the life-and-death situations that Howard is addressing, but there exists an obvious alignment between his desire to be an agent of social change and how he views his role with the Rockets over the next month or more. The divisiveness that often seemed to swirl around him in Orlando and L.A. is out. Harmony is the stated goal.
“For our team to be successful, my main objective has to be the anchor on the defensive end,” Howard said. “When James is in the game, it’s on me to defend and lock up the paint. When he’s out of the game, that will be an opportunity for me to get some points. My main goal is to always dominate the paint and make sure I keep opponents from getting in there and scoring. By the time we get to the playoffs, I’ll be in a great rhythm, James will already be in a great rhythm, and our team will be in a great flow.”