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Is Dwight Howard improving like we'd hoped?

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A peek at the big man's season so far turns up some worrying signs.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Entering this season, there were three big questions between this Houston Rockets team and serious title contention: Could they do it without a third star? Would the bench be good enough? And, would Dwight Howard get/stay healthy and provide something like his Orlando form?

We're into 2015, around 40 percent through the season, and so far, the first two questions have mostly been answered. The Rockets are good enough without a third star if their defense can keep pace, and Daryl Morey has made plenty of moves to turn the bench from a minus into a plus. Now, that third question hangs even heavier. At this point, can we tell if Dwight will be good enough for the Rockets to make a run at the title?

Dwight is averaging 17.8 PPG, which is right around where he's been each year since injuring his back and leaving Orlando. More worryingly, he's only averaging 11.5 rebounds per game, which would be his lowest rate since his rookie year. Of course, he's averaging only 33 minutes per game, which is also his fewest since that rookie year. That's a good thing -- the Rockets are doing a good job of trying to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

So the basic stats certainly don't inspire confidence, but they also don't tell the whole story. Let's break it down in three parts.

Offense

Dwight is not the focal point of the Rockets' offense, that much is clear. The Rockets' offensive options, in descending order, are James Harden's creation (for himself and others), three-point shots, and post play. The first option often leads directly to the second and third, but that still gives you a sense of why Dwight, health aside, is never going to average 25 points a game for this team.

In the 12 games since Dwight's return from his knee injury, these have been his points-rebounds totals: 26-13, 24-16, 17-13, 19-11, 16-13, 6-11, 24-17, 13-5, 11-8, 12-5, 23-13, 12-14. That is inconsistent production, with lows that are downright unsettling.

In total, Dwight has had nine "Dominant Dwight" games (to borrow a term from TDS editor Ethan Rothstein) in which he's had 20 points and 10 rebounds. He's played 22 games out of the Rockets' 34. Personally, I don't think the Rockets can win a title if "Dominant Dwight" comes out to play less than half the time.

People are noticing.

So why is Dwight not consistently aggressive? Where's Dominant Dwight? Let's see what his shot chart from this year compared to last year and an Orlando year can tell us. Here's this year, according to NBA.com:

That's not bad! I'll take 62% around the rim, and it's not like we want him taking jumpers anyway. How does that compare with last year?

So no improvement, and no decline either. He's also averaging around 12 shots from the field this year, right in line with last year's numbers. Here's his shot chart from 2008-09, the year he led the Magic to the Finals:

He also attempted around 12 shots a game that year. So, in terms of his shooting from the field, not much has changed at any point. That's encouraging. Not as encouraging are his free throw numbers. From that Orlando season: 10.8 FTA (that's attempts) at 59%. Last year: 9.6 FTA at 55%. This year: 8.3 FTA at 49%.

Basketball-Reference lists his free throw attempt rate (the amount of free throws he takes relative to shots from the field) at .654, his lowest rate since he's rookie year. We know he'll be bad at the line, but getting there is still important, if only to put opposing bigs in foul trouble. What's more, he's gotten worse at shooting them, somehow.

That's where the lack of aggressiveness is, I think. I'm certainly not qualified to say whether he's healthy or not, but I do know that the Rockets attempted only five free throws in last night's loss against the Bulls, and that just plain won't cut it.

Dwight's offensive game this year can be looked at one of two ways: either he's just about where he was last year, with a slight (and reversible) dip at the line, or you can look at B-Ref's Box Plus-Minus stat, which they define as "A box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team." Dwight is at -0.6, with the offensive side (-2.6) doing all of the damage. He grades out as a below-replacement player this way!

There are far more metrics by which Dwight grades out as a positive, and I'm damn sure not going to argue we'd be better off without him. But something is not right with Dwight.

One potential source of the problem: the big man hasn't had more than one assist in any of his last seven games. If this is related to his drop in free-throw shooting, one potential explanation could be that he's not drawing double teams to pass out of. If that were true, and he still wasn't shooting more or producing more points, that is very worrisome.

Rebounding

Per 36 minutes, Dwight Howard is averaging only 12.4 rebounds. That's his lowest mark since 2006-07, lower even than his year on the Lakers. More worryingly, he's only averaging 3.1 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, which would be the lowest mark of his entire career. Part of that could be chalked up to the long rebounds that all of the Rockets' three-point shooting creates, but many offensive rebounds come from tip-ins or from a big man rebounding his own miss -- signposts for athleticism.

Look at his movement in the Heat game from a few days ago, in which he had a Dominant Dwight (20-10) game, and five offensive rebounds. They're all tip-ins or self-rebounds on drives to the hoop. If D12's not fully healthy, or just isn't the same athlete he was before his back injury, that could go a long way towards explaining why he can't do that as much as he used to.

Howard's still a big, strong man though, and that's never going away. He is still an excellent rebounder by the standards of the league, pulling down 5 contested rebounds a game, good for eighth in the league. He also is in the top 20 in terms of rebounding percentage, meaning the percentage of rebounds he gets out of rebounding opportunities. Both of those stats are courtesy of NBA.com's player tracking data.

Dwight's 29, and he's been in the league since he was 18. Him being merely an excellent rebounder, instead of the best in the game, may be the new normal. That shouldn't prevent the Rockets from winning a title.

Defense

Like in rebounding, Dwight Howard is still excellent on this end. He's allowing only a 42.9% rate on field goal attempts that he defends at the rim, a top-10 number. However, there are a couple of worrying signs that he might not be fully healthy, or at least not the same guy physically.

Before Dwight's knee injury, his defensive rating was a stunning 90 flat. After, it's a less-robust 98. That's still good, and to some extent dependent on his teammates, but it is not a great sign.

He's averaging 1.6 blocks per game, which is a top-15 number this year. That's good! But according to B-Ref, he's only blocking 4.1% of opponents' attempts while on the floor, a number in line with last year but significantly lower than his pre-back injury days. That's bad.

Finally, his steals numbers are also down. He's averaging only 0.6 per game, which would be the lowest of his career over a full season. Steals are not the best indicator of defensive skill, but if one were to draw a conclusion from steal numbers, it would probably be how active they are, especially off of their man.

If Dwight's steals are down, it could mean he's not affecting the game defensively as much as he used to in terms of creating chaos. He may be more content to sit back and deter shots at the rim. That's very useful, but it's something he's always done along with better steals and blocks (another help-defense stat) numbers. If he's doing less, it's just another worry to add to the pile.

Big Picture

It's sad to say this, but we haven't gotten the improved health or production from Dwight Howard that many of us anticipated this year. The Rockets' improvement (which has waned in the past month) has been due to other factors (*cough* James Harden *cough*). Perhaps some of it has even come at the expense of Dwight's numbers.

And yet, it's important to note that Dwight is still one of the best players in the league. If not top-10, then top-20 for sure. It would surprise exactly no one if he improved from here and had longer stretches of Dominant Dwight into the playoffs. But so far, it's looked like it's time to lower our expectations for the big man from here on out.