Going back as far as one might want to look, with the lone exception of Michael Jordan's first three-title run, each and every NBA title winner has had a man in the middle.
A force, whether through offensive ability, monster rebounding, intimidating rim protection or some combination of the three, who has struck fear into the hearts of their opponents. Someone who needed accounting for at all times. Someone who's mere presence underneath the rim has forced teams into series-altering adjustments. A big man who's helped write history and bring rings back to his city.
The Spurs had Tim Duncan and David Robinson. The Lakers have had Wilt, Kareem, Shaq and Pau Gasol. The Heat had Shaq and Chris Bosh (a future Hall of Famer in his own right). The Pistons had Bill Laimbeer (four-time All Star and former rebounding champion) and later elite-defender Ben Wallace. The second trio of Bulls titles had Dennis Rodman gobbling up rebounds in a manner not seen in years. The Celtics had Bill Russell and then the Robert Parish/Kevin McHale combination. Despite his non-elite status, the Mavs lone title doesn't happen without Tyson Chandler's defense, rebounding and leadership.
The Rockets two titles were obviously completely Hakeem Olajuwon-driven.
The Rockets have such a big man in Dwight Howard, capable of altering and even dominating the game and series in any of the three main big man duties, and his health this season, or lack thereof, will ultimately determine the Rockets post season fate.
Howard has missed 31 of 63 games so far this year with a variety of ailments, most recently knee trouble that has kept him out since Jan. 23. Although when playing, he hasn't exactly been the Dwight Howard the league has been used to seeing.
His 16.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per night on 57.5 percent shooting are very good, if not quite elite numbers, but they represent a steep drop in effectiveness.
His scoring is the lowest it's been since his second season, his rebounding the lowest since his rookie season and his blocks tied for his worst season ever. His advanced metrics have his defensive win shares, offensive win shares and offensive plus minus both at career lows by a wide margin, and his defensive plus minus tied for the worst of his career.
So how is a big man in the midst of his worst ever statistical season and who's barely played in the half of the Rockets games so far the key to a title run? Well, for starters, Howard hasn't been healthy all season, telling Rockets beat writer Jonathan Feigen yesterday, "I don't think I had a time I felt really good on the floor," and that rest and treatment has him feeling "explosive."
Feigen has corroborated Howard's statement by saying he looked fantastic in practice and has been "living above the rim." That's something we haven't seen from Dwight since the first weeks of the season, when he and James Harden appeared as though they'd haunt the league as a pick and roll nightmare all year long.
By all accounts, Howard is looking spry and is right on track with his rehab, and we should see him back on the court in one-to-three weeks. If he truly is healthy for the stretch run, which was the ultimate goal of this time off, the Rockets should be an absolute force come playoff time.
The Rockets also need Howard's post-up game for the playoffs, when the game slows down and gets more physical, half court sets become more common, fouls become less common, and teams look to double Harden and rough him up.
We couldn't be happier that Dwight's injury has allowed for the accelerated development of both Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas (covered here and here), and if there are any potential shot creators in the paint other than Dwight, it's definitely those two.
But is anyone quite ready to totally trust and completely hand them the reins in potential successive seven-game series with San Antonio, Memphis and Golden State (or the Clippers)? Me neither.
In addition, Dwight's rebounding and rim protection will be sorely needed in the half court game as well. He's the only player on this roster to ever average a double-digit rebound season. And though he isn't blocking shots like he used to, merely the threat of Dwight's presence is enough to alter opponent's shooting plans and allow the ultra-athletic Jones and Josh Smith to wreak havoc from the backside.
The Western Conference playoffs are certain to be a battle of attrition, and while anyone could love the Rockets chances with the MVBeard leading the way, this year's post season is as much of an all-hands-on-deck situation as there could exist in sports.
If history has proven anything, it's the Rockets need a HEALTHY Dwight Howard patrolling the paint if they wish to finally end their playoff malaise; don't forget, they've had only one series victory since the 1996-1997 season.