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December has been good to Dwight Howard as he seems to have finally walked out from under the shade left from his brief tenure in Los Angeles.

So far this month, Howard has averaged 21.3 ppg, 15 rpg and 1.8 bpg while shooting 62% from the field and a surprising 60% from the FT line. Not bad considering his league-high 104 attempts in that stretch.

Dwight Howard is Dwight Howard again. In fact, maybe better. He no longer looks self-conscious of the boos he gets from opposing fans, almost reveling in them now. From a moment in the 2nd half of last night’s Christmas Day game against the San Antonio Spurs, Howard
stepped onto the court to a chorus of boos, to which he playfully began to lead the chorus.

More importantly, though, Howard is like a leader in Houston, or at least, he feels like one. He is actually one of the team’s oldest members at 28. Only Francisco Garcia is significantly older. Aaron Brooks and Ronnie Brewer were born in the same year. Of the entire roster, Howard has the longest NBA tenure at 9 years in the league.

Howard is almost by default a leader on this team—which is something he wanted. But the question is what, kind of team does that make the Rockets? The Lakers were never a good fit. Kobe Bryant is a serious kind of man that casts an even more imposing shadow. Dwight is not. But he’s not exactly a clown either, which is what I thought before he joined the Rockets.

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Dwight Howard is a ham and he often tries too hard, but I’ve never seen another player so committed to the “fun” part of the game. In most (if not every arena) there is a pre-4th quarter intro that plays on the big screen that has players from the home team urging the fans to get loud and ramp it up to close the game. I haven’t seen anyone so committed to making this happen as Dwight Howard. Usually, you get half-hearted awkwardness. Dwight actually kind of got me pumped for the 4th.

During the Christmas Day game, they played a video of Dwight singing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. These are usually terrible, but Dwight sang the shit out of that thing. I mean, he was kind of in key, and slightly less ridiculous than the usual NBA player singing promo, but he was committed to and seemed to genuinely enjoy every second of it.

He loves this shit. Dwight is happy and he is dominant again. And yet, if this is becoming Dwight’s team as some analysts have suggested, what kind of team does this make the Houston Rockets? Well, it’s not Dwight Howard’s team.

The downside through this great stretch for Dwight is that the Rockets were only 6-6 in December through Christmas. That’s not all on Howard as the Rockets have been without Jeremy Lin due to back spasms, and James Harden has been in and out of the lineup due to a gimpy ankle. The Rockets also lost Pat Beverley for 4-6 weeks with a broken hand.

The sudden lack of guard depth after losing Beverley forced Lin to have to return to the lineup on Dec 23 vs Dallas. He looked as good as could be expected in the return, but Harden sat out that game. Dwight Howard finished with 29 pts and 15 reb, but the Rockets floundered on offense in the 4th quarter and could not close.

Which should be no surprise as Howard has never been that guy. Which is to say, the Rockets can never be a completely Dwight-led team in the same way the Los Angeles Lakers were never completely Shaquille O’Neal’s team. Kobe was the closer.

Harden’s strong performance in his return against the Spurs only bolsters that idea. As much as Kobe was the closer during the 1990’s Lakers championships, Harden will be for the Rockets. When teams like the Spurs start to tighten up their defense in the 4th quarter, you need a player who can beat his man one-on-one AND make free throws. If you who think Harden was taking difficult shots, you’re underestimating how good these players are. Marco Belinelli will never be able to guard James Harden one-on-one.

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With that said, James Harden and Dwight Howard are not Shaq and Kobe. Dwight still hasn’t quite figured out how to turn the “fun” off yet. Shaq did that well, balancing his often child-like public persona with a brutal in-game mental and physical dominance. And, Harden still hasn’t yet committed himself to defense the way Kobe did in his prime. Until that happens, Harden won’t be able to take this team to the next level.

For Rockets fans, however, getting the Dwight Howard they had hoped for this December has been a gift aplenty, bringing Houston one step closer to being a contender. — R.H.

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