There are four cringe-worthy words we never want to hear as Rockets fans: Dwight Howard, back problems.
Back in April of 2012, Howard had micro surgery due to a herniated disc in his back, causing him to miss the remainder of the season and the 2012 Summer Olympics before he was moved via trade in the offseason to the Los Angeles Lakers in a blockbuster four-team deal.
Unfortunately for Howard, the immense pressures of Tinseltown forced him back onto the court a mere six months after major surgery, and a lack of conditioning and subsequent torn shoulder labrum had him never quite looking like Superman next to notorious ball hog and World's Worst Teammate Kobe Bryant.
He did manage to fight through the recovery and the additional injury to lead the league in rebounding, albeit with the lowest total average of any rebound leader in NBA history, but the damage in L.A. had been done, and Howard wisely moved on to Houston.
Despite declaring himself fully healthy and in-shape several times since arriving with the Rockets, Howard has missed 51 games in two seasons due to a variety of ailments, most notably a recurring knee issue that forced him out for exactly half of the 2014-2015 season.
Since being pressured onto the court too early in L.A. after back surgery, Dwight has never again been truly 100 percent. Even last year's Playoff Dwight, he of the 16.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and numerous thunderous alley-oops, was playing with a torn MCL and meniscus. Back problems are serious business, and they can effect every other part of the body for a long time if not properly healed, rested, and rehabbed.
It's disconcerting then, to see Howard on the sidelines less than a week before the start of the regular season with his second back issue in less than a month.
Howard claims that he's fine, telling the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen:
"I'm feeling pretty good. Today I did a lot of stuff on the court, a lot of conditioning, a lot of stuff with a little contact. The main thing is making sure I'm in great shape, good enough shape where I can come back and play as many minutes as I can.
"The most important thing is making sure my body is ready for the long haul. We have a long season. My teammates need me to be healthy. I don't think playing in a preseason game to prove to everybody that I can play is necessary. The most important thing is that I'm ready and in pretty good shape."
Since we've heard these declarations of health from Howard before that ultimately turned out false, what makes this situation different from the past several seasons? Howard believes it's a different (and ultimately minor) issue altogether, telling ESPN's Calvin Watkins:
"I had surgery on the left side of my back, but that was almost three years ago. There is tightness in my right lower back. Anybody that knows about sports and playing a lot of basketball, you use your hips and legs a lot, and unfortunately for me, I use mine more than most people.
"Just my hips and everything got tight from doing a lot of work and working out all summer, and it's different than training camp work. So my body just reacted to it. It's not anything structurally wrong with my back."
Howard vows that he'll be ready for the start of the regular season (technically game two after serving a one-game suspension) and expects to have a healthy run this season, but yet another in a seemingly unending string of injuries since that fated 2012 back surgery forces the skeptics in us.
There has already been talk of resting Howard on certain back-to-back games and also the recognition that second-year man Clint Capela would be expected to contribute more minutes in spelling Howard this season.
But these constant injuries also may have an effect beyond this year, as Howard is eligible for free agency at the conclusion of this season. He does hold a player option for $23.2 million, but should the Rockets fall short of a title once again, the coming cap increase and untold free agency riches to follow may be too much for Howard to pass up.
Surely some team (Knicks, anyone?) will be willing to offer Howard a massive deal, and the Rockets may not even want him to return if he can't get back on the court with regularity. $23 million is a lot of cheddar for a player on a minutes limit that also sits a game during back-to-backs.
With the amount of studs set to hit the open market (Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Andre Drummond, Pau Gasol, Al Horford, Al Jefferson, DeMar DeRozan, Hassan Whiteside are just a few of the names that could be available in the offseason), that $23 mill along with the pending cap increase would go a long way to attracting healthier talent.
Ultimately, the decision is Howard's, not the team's, but don't expect him back if the team doesn't want him, and don't expect them to want him if he just can't stay healthy.
There's a lot more riding on this season for Howard than just the final result for the Rockets. The very direction of the back half of his career is at stake, and his health will play the deciding role in both.
A good start is being true to his word and ready, fully healthy and manning the paint Superman-style in Game 2.