Dwight Howard is still a very tall man, just shy of seven feet, with a wingspan and personality to match. He still dominates the painted area of a basketball court. If you are an opposing player or coach, he is still difficult to ignore.
And yet something odd has happened in this, his 10th NBA season. Howard, this towering personality with the Superman complex has become nearly invisible. Obscured. An afterthought.
Check the MVP leaderboards. Dwight Howard is not there.
Listen to the pundits gush about the league's great young bigs. Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert have commandeered the discussion. Anthony Davis generates the most excitement. DeMarcus Cousins, the most angst.
And Howard? What does he generate? Polite applause? Quiet appreciation?
Not long ago, Howard stood alongside LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the NBA's most venerated young stars—the players every GM named when asked to pick one star to start a franchise.
Then Howard injured his back, forced his way out of Orlando, forced his way out of Los Angeles and alienated half the nation. By the time he arrived in Houston last summer, he was a broken player and a reviled figure.
And now? Now Dwight Howard has quietly turned the Rockets into a dark-horse contender in the rugged Western Conference. And he's generating indifference. He seems fine with this.
"I think people forget," Howard said in a recent phone interview, referring to his fleeting status. "But it takes time. It takes time to get stuff back. It's something that I know that I can get back, everything that I've lost. But all that stuff takes time. My focus is really on helping this team, and helping these young guys be as good as possible."
A cranky ankle had forced Howard to miss nine of the last 11 games as of Wednesday, but he is expected to be ready for the playoffs.
By any standard, Howard is having a perfectly productive season, averaging 18.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. His field-goal percentage is a stout .590, his best mark in three seasons. His player efficiency rating (PER) is 21.5, down from his peak Orlando years, but two points higher than last season.
Howard, now 28 years old and two years removed from back surgery, might never match his Orlando production. But he doesn't need to.
Here's the number that matters most: .675. That was the Rockets' winning percentage as of Wednesday morning, their best mark since 2007-08, when Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were in their prime.
James Harden's arrival in 2012 put Houston back on a winning path. But it was Howard's decision to join him last summer that pushed the Rockets into the thick of the Western Conference race.
Shining in Rockets' Advanced Statistics
With Howard, the Rockets have risen to 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (from 16th last season), allowing 102.8 points per 100 possessions, according to ESPN.com. His true value is harder to ascertain, unless you employ a small army of statisticians. Which, happily, the Rockets do.
With Howard on the court, opponents' attempts at the rim go down by 2 percent, according to Rockets officials. Until recently—before Howard injured his ankle—that figure was closer to 5 percent, consistent with his career mark. He has led the league in this metric over the past 10 seasons, according to the Rockets.
Opponents attacking the basket average less than one point per possession when Howard is protecting the rim, mostly because they are settling for tougher shots or adjusting to shoot around him.
Away from the rim, Howard impacts opponents' two-point field-goal rate by 7 percent when he challenges a shot, placing him among the top five in the league.
And while Howard ranks in the top 10 in blocks per game, his impact here goes deeper, as well. According to the Rockets, 65 percent of Howard's blocks lead to Houston gaining possession—a rate that ranks only behind Golden State's Andrew Bogut and Washington's Marcin Gortat. (The league average is 59 percent.)
Moreover, Howard consistently challenges shots without fouling, averaging 1.21 blocks per shooting foul, ranking him second, behind Hibbert. He is third in scoring among centers, behind Al Jefferson (21.7 points per game) and Cousins (22.3).
While Howard ranks fourth in rebounds per game, he is No. 1 in securing "contested" rebounds—at a rate of 70 percent, according to the Rockets. Howard is also No. 1 in contested offensive rebounds, which he grabs at a 50 percent rate.
Howard's mere presence has made the Rockets' shooters more effective. Their three-point success rate when assisted by Howard is 10 percent higher than their average otherwise, according to the Rockets.
These are the impacts that are not as evident to the naked eye, as well as the reason the Rockets went all out to lure Howard to Houston last July, when they signed him to a four-year, $88 million contract.
"We had a very good defensive center (in Omer Asik)," said general manager Daryl Morey, "but with Dwight we were hoping to get something close to the Defensive Player of the Year, which we have."
The payoff has come more quickly than anticipated. The Rockets, who finished eighth in the West last season, are 52-25 and in fourth place as of Tuesday night, trailing only San Antonio (60-18), Oklahoma City (56-21) and the Los Angeles Clippers (55-23). Of those teams, the Rockets are by far the youngest, and with the least amount of time together.
Building Toward a Title
A championship run seems unrealistic this spring, given the competition. But Howard said it's not far off.
"I think we can challenge for it," he said. "We just still have a lot of room to grow. These teams have been together for a couple of years. But this is our first year together.
"You can see the difference in our team from the beginning of the year to now. At the beginning of the year, guys were reluctant to throw lob passes and passes over the top to the bigs. And now, it's second nature."
The emergence of Chandler Parsons as a third option and Patrick Beverley as an all-around defensive pest has accelerated the Rockets' growth. Beverley's recent knee injury is a concern, although he is expected to return by the playoffs.
Ultimately, the Rockets will go as far as Harden and Howard can carry them. That partnership is still in its early stages, but the results have been promising. Harden is averaging 25.5 points and a team-high 16.6 field-goal attempts per game, while Howard has settled into a complementary role.
Harden, with his bustling beard and his electrifying offense, is the scruffy face of this franchise. At times, Howard is more sidekick than superhero.
"James, he has to score," Howard said. "So that's not my concern. I can do other things besides scoring the basketball."
Indeed, Howard never seemed entirely comfortable as the No. 1 scoring option in Orlando, and he seems happy to be trading shots for wins. He's also playing just 34 minutes a game, the least since his rookie season.
"Every day we bring it in (for the huddle), we say 'Family,' we say, 'Together,'" Howard said. "Me and James, our relationship has grown throughout the season—the road trips that we've had, the time that we've spent together off the court, just made us a lot better. And it's showing up on the floor."
"I don't think we're at our peak," Howard said of the partnership. "We're still developing as players. I always had to create for others. Having a guy like him that can create for him and create for others, it just makes both of our lives better."
Howard and Harden have already made plans to train together this summer.
"We want to be that tandem that can really blow teams away," Howard said.
Howard's back, which required surgery in 2012, is sound again. His injured shoulder, which hampered his production for the Lakers last season, has healed. The road back has taken a toll, but Howard feels he is close to regaining the form that carried the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009.
Coming Back from Popularity Crash
Rebuilding an image is an altogether different challenge.
In 2011, when he was with the Magic, Howard was viewed positively by 29 percent of NBA fans, according to Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Q Scores. Howard's "negative" score back then was 10—meaning 10 percent of NBA fans disliked him.
But Howard's trade demand, and subsequent reports that he was trying to get coach Stan Van Gundy fired, crushed his popularity. By the spring of 2012, Howard's positive Q Score had dropped to 23, and his negative rating had increased to 13.
The tailspin continued after Howard forced a trade to the Lakers, where he clashed with coach Mike D'Antoni and co-star Kobe Bryant. As of 2013, Howard's positive Q Score had tumbled to 19, and his negative score had shot up to 16, according to Schafer.
"By and large, he took a lot of steps backwards," Schafer said. "He's got to work hard on him image."
These things are malleable, though. Four years ago, LeBron James torched his image with an ill-conceived television show and a self-indulgent rally in Miami. Then he won two championships, turned on the charm and regained fans' adoration (even in Cleveland).
"I watched it closely," Howard said. "Because people don't understand how tough it is, how tough it was for both of us to make the decisions that we made. And for me having to do it twice in the span of two years, very tough. Because you don't want to hurt people. And I don't think LeBron wanted to hurt anybody. And we have that same type of personality, to where we enjoy the fans. We want to be liked. So It's very hard for both of us to deal with it."
It has taken some time, but Howard is starting to reclaim lost ground, rebuilding his body and his game and moving closer to what Morey referred to as "Orlando goes to the Finals Dwight."
For now, Howard remains in a weird limbo, neither universally revered nor universally reviled, inspiring as many shrugs as boos. Dwight Howard is still big, still dominant and still working feverishly to regain what was lost. All he has to do is win.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.