But it’s not his fault. The Rockets simply lack high-quality rotation defenders outside of Howard and Omer Asik, and D12 has become the crutch to many of his team’s collapses. You can’t be an anchor to a wandering ship.
From Red94’s Michael Pina:
The Rockets’ overall defense is top-10 with Howard on the floor and about average when he’s off. He plays a ton, too. Kevin McHale refuses to remove Howard from the game in Hack-a-Howard situations and usually lets him play through threatening times early on after he’s picked up multiple fouls.
In other words: Howard’s team depends on him badly. Omer Asik has recently returned from injury and should be able to mitigate Howard’s usage rate some, but he’s still has clocked no fewer than 34 minutes in any close game the Rockets have played since Asik was cleared to play.
And it’s not just James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons—the usual suspects—who are causing Howard to be over-stretched. Budding frontcourt partner Terrence Jones is also a shaky defender (he is only 22 years old, after all), giving Dwight an unusually large burden protecting the rim for his team.
Asked about the Rockets’ team defense after a disappointing Dec. 28 loss to the Sacramento Kings, Howard appeared reticent to call his teammates out, and he simply said, “I’m not going to talk about it anymore. We’ve all got to play defense better.” (via ClutchFans.net)
But Howard himself doesn’t. Per NBA.com, his opponents’ field-goal rate at the rim is just 47 percent. This is the fourth best mark among high-usage NBA centers—only Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert and Robin Lopez are better, and all of those big men have more savvy, experienced frontcourt partners on board to lessen their load.
It’s nearly safe to say that Howard is still the strongest paint defender in the league. Hibbert is likely to win this year’s Defensive Player of the Year Award—a trophy Howard once took home three years in a row with the Orlando Magic—but he benefits from an incredible, potentially historically good team defense.
Howard’s team attacks with a mission that’s almost the complete opposite of Hibbert’s defensively minded Indiana Pacers. The Rockets push the ball down the floor, early and often, and have largely attempted to bate teams into shootouts, causing excesses of long rebounds and errant ball movement that often force Howard to play defense when the rest of his team is scrambling and not set up.
That’s changed a bit lately as they’ve been able to find Howard for more signature finishes at the hoop as a roll man, but Houston is still not enough of a half-court team to have instilled consistently sound defensive habits.
What’s the solution to Houston’s over-reliance on Howard? Optimistic fans would say that it’s already in place, and that the team is amidst a stylistic evolution as they react to a slower, more playoff-centric form of basketball taking over in big games down the stretch. They’re learning an appropriate two-way balance that will result in better overall defensive performance soon.
A less hopeful take on things has the Rockets simply lacking the right men to play in the tougher, more impenetrable way that they may need to to advance far in the brutal Western Conference Playoffs. Maybe Harden's nimble mind only works for him on one end of the floor and Jones will always be a minus defender, prone to trickery.
Either way, Howard is sure to be the linchpin on his team's defense. Let's just hope he's not also its sole hope, its everything.