When Dwight Howard joined the Houston Rockets in July of 2013 and added another “superstar” to a squad that featured scoring wizard James Harden, Houston was supposed to become legitimate NBA c’hip contenders.
Fast forward to 2016 and it's safe to say that Howard was not the missing piece to the Rockets' championship aspirations. It was fantasy thinking at best as Houston has proven it isn't god enough to romp with the top dawgs. In fact, Wednesday night's 116-103 loss to Portland has knocked them into ninth place in the WC playoff race.
When he joined Houston, there was nothing in Howard’s recent past that suggested he would provide anything special in the way of leadership. Apparently Harden’s work ethic has deteriorated a bit as Howard’s personality has become a more influential part of Houston’s team.
Despite the center playing in just 85 games the past two seasons, it seems that Howard's tumultuous career flow, lack of passion and unpredictable health patterns have rubbed off on a Rockets team that made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season before getting manhandled by Golden State 4-1.
Former Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who was fired after the Rockets stumbled to a 4-7 start, blames Harden’s poor conditioning for the rocky beginning. On national TV before Tuesday night’s game between the Rockets and Warriors, McHale confirmed that Harden came into camp a bit overweight and it negatively affected the team. That, coupled with Howard’s usual ailments, threw Houston’s entire game plan off in the preseason.
Harden was on his Pillsbury Doughboy and Howard's fragile body, ego and poor mental toughness couldn't handle back-to-back practices. McHale basically implied that Harden stopped grinding and became a big-headed superstar whose near-MVP campaign in the 2014-15 season led to complacency and a loss of crispness in his game.
In this clip from 2014, Harden admits to being suspect on defense, but his explanation is even more revealing and sheds light on why Houston has declined to this point. Peep how he refers to himself as a star and infers that a lot of "stars" don't play defense. This is rather alarming to me, but the fans don't seem to mind.
Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff hasn't sparked a dramatic turnaround. Houston is a pedestrian 27-27 overall and looking at the Western Conference playoff picture from the outside in.
Houston goes as Harden goes and the bearded one hasn't been on his "A" game this season. Harden leads the NBA in minutes played and is averaging a career-high 28.0 points per game. However, his True Shooting percentage is the lowest it's been since his rookie season.
While he was getting his buckets in the first 11 games under McHale (27.3 ppg), Harden made only 37.2 percent of his field goal attempts. His shot selection was disgusting, he was a turnover machine and a statue on defense.
This season Harden is shooting his lowest field goal and trey percentages since his third-wheeling OKC days. His lackluster second period against Portland on Wednesday included a few errant passes, which prompted the ESPN announcer to describe him as "nonchalant."
The "Dwight Howard Effect" has taken hold in Houston. I’m not directly blaming Howard for Harden slacking on his off-season game and carrying the whackness into this season, but a veteran of Howard’s ilk and tenure should be offering more guidance to his impressionable superstar.
We know how it ended in Orlando for Howard. Eight seasons, one NBA Finals, but he never closed the deal. Howard was then traded to the Lakers as the crucial piece in a four-team deal. The assumption was that the Lakers had snagged a long-term, elite franchise piece to take over as the face of the Lakers when Kobe Bryant retires. Unfortunately, Howard never meshed with Hollywood, battled injuries and failed to get along with Black Mamba. He left as a free agent following a feeble playoff effort. LA got swept out of the playoffs and embarrassed by the Spurs.
Everywhere Howard goes in his well-paid career, the teams that invest their souls in the center's commitment to greatness usually come up short and stumbling down a tunnel of shaky chemistry, lack of passion and overrated expectations. He'll give you those flashes of brilliance like he did in the first half on Wednesday night against Portland, but you never know if he'll show up and if he checks out...fugetaboutit.
After a 2014-15 season that launched great expectations and optimism for 2016, the Rockets are losing ground in the West. Hopefully Harden learns from the trials and tribulations of this season, re-evaluates his leadership skills, re-dedicates himself to winning, stops worrying about being a "star" and puts in the proper work to become an improved all-around player and the ultimate championship competitor.