Dwight Howard won't be back in a Rockets uniform until March at the earliest. This is a regrettable reality.
Howard was once considered so indestructible no one really quibbled -- other than Shaq -- when he donned a Superman outfit in the Dunk Contest. Everyone called him Superman. It seemed natural.
In the last three years, he's had back surgery, a lengthy recovery from said surgery, a balky ankle and now this pesky knee. He tweaked it earlier this year. He had platelet-rich plasma therapy to try to induce quick healing. It didn't work. Now the swelling has returned and he's out for the longest period of time since he had surgery.
Just this morning, the Rockets announced Howard had a "bone marrow aspirate injection" and will be re-evaluated after four weeks of rehabilitation. The hope is the bone marrow, taken from his hip, helps spur healing and re-growth of cartilage. Not good.
The Rockets are not the same without him. No, he's no longer one of the five best players in the league. Yes, his per-36 minute numbers aren't a far diversion from his career averages, but they're slightly down across the board. He's playing fewer minutes per game than ever, so it's not like he's making more of an impact when he's on the court. But he's still a dominant defensive force, one of the league's elite rim protector and guaranteed to get opposing big men into some sort of foul trouble.
Here's what SB Nation's Liam Boylan-Pett wrote about how the Rockets do without Howard in there:
Without Howard the Rockets are still one of the best teams in the West, but his services are certainly missed. When Howard is on the court the Rockets have an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 104.3, but when he's on the bench it's just 102.4. They suffer even more defensively. With Howard on the court the Rockets' defensive rating is 97.4, when he's off the court it rises to 101.2. The Rockets dearly miss the defensive prowess of Howard.
So yes, the Rockets won't be as good defensively, but that doesn't mean they won't be good.
The obvious number to point out is 11-5, which is the Rockets' record in games Dwight has missed. Among those wins are the Mavericks (twice), the Grizzlies and the Suns, with losses to the Warriors (duh), Clippers and, most recently, the Pistons.
But there's more at play here. According to basketball-reference's box score plus/minus stats, Dwight has been 2.7 points worse per possession than an average center. This isn't that shocking -- he's never been above a 0.6 in the positive category in his career.
But this is the first season of Dwight's career that his defensive -- again, according to just one stat -- has not outweighed the slogging effect he has on the team's offense.
Without Howard in the lineup, Kevin McHale has been starting Joey Dorsey at center and Donatas Motiejunas at power forward. Dorsey hasn't sniffed 20 minutes a game despite the start, with McHale largely using Donuts, Josh Smith and freshly-returned-from-injury Terrence Jones as the big man rotation. Smoove and Jones are incredibly mobile, and Motiejunas has more touch around the basket and is a better interior passer.
No one on the Rockets can come close to matching Howard's defensive ability or ability to finish at the rim and/or draw fouls. But Howard's absence allows the team to be more creative offensively; Motiejunas is a monster in the post-up game -- shooting 56 percent on those types of plays, per Synergy Sports -- and is a great passer when the double-teams come. Now that he's playing closer to the basket, his rebounding has improved, despite not matching Howard's totals.
The Rockets are not a better team without the big man in the middle. But the doctor who performed Howard's procedure said there's no reason to think he won't be back before the playoffs. Since that's the case, there should be no panic among Rockets fans. They might not be the No. 3 seed in the West, but this team is playoff-bound.