HOUSTON -- You see it from time to time and begin to wonder whether the skills are starting to erode. Dwight Howard, the Houston Rockets' star center, backs down an opponent on the low block. His jump hook misses everything.
Rim. Backboard. Nothing.
It's a rebound for somebody, and up the court they go.
But sometimes, in the same situation, Howard scores with so much grace and ease, you begin to wonder whether Superman never left the building.
At times, Howard's post game has left the building, and the limited number of touches he's received this season makes people wonder if he's still the man. You know, like Superman.
"The more confidence I have on the block, the better I'll be," Howard said. "Each day I just continue to work on getting reps, so when I get in the game, I can get to my spot and just finish. I haven't thought about anything in particular, but to set hard screens, rolling to get in deep post position and making the play.
"I think when I get on the blocks, teams load up and make it difficult for me to play one-on-one, so I just try to beat my man down the floor so I can make easy buckets."
Does he still have them?
Howard is averaging just 13 PPG (18.0 career PPG), his lowest scoring output since his rookie season with Orlando in 2004-05. His points per game per 100 possessions is 20.1, the lowest since that rookie season, when he put up 18.6.
His usage rate at 18.5 is also the lowest since a 16.7 campaign with the Magic.
When he's on the court, the Rockets are good with him, at plus-1.4. But when he's sitting, the Rockets are even better without him, jumping to plus-6.9.
For one thing, Howard turned 30 earlier this month. He recently told the Orlando Sentinel he hopes to play 10 more seasons. But he's battled back and knee issues over the past year.
Howard endured a stiff back early in training camp, limiting his time on the floor and forcing the Rockets' medical staff to bring him along slowly. When the regular season started, Howard was limited in minutes and held out of back-to-back games.
After a few weeks, however, Howard is back to playing as many minutes as necessary and with an occasional "maintenance" day off (the kind that Tim Duncan receives from time to time), things are normal with Howard.
"Actually, the last couple of weeks I've been feeling really good," Howard said. "I've just been trying to stay free and not allowing any of the noise from the outside, the crazy rumors and all that stuff to affect who I am with my teammates and what we're trying to accomplish. My body has felt great. I think when you stay stress-free, your body tends to follow."
As Howard matures, he doesn't feel the need to tweak his game. He says if you have too many moves, it just messes up your game. "I think a lot of people think you got to have a million and one post moves to score down there," Howard says. "The best thing to do is stay simple."
He's a combination power/finesse, someone who can also dominate on pick-and-roll plays with talented guards such as James Harden. He still has jumping ability for alley-oop passes, and on Wednesday against Orlando, he scored five times on alley-oops, including two passes from Harden. But late in the game he couldn't get free for another lob pass from Harden that eventually resulted in him falling down and throwing a pass to Trevor Ariza for a corner 3.
One of Howard's best plays this season came against the Knicks on an alley-oop pass from guard Marcus Thornton leading to a dunk over 7-foot-3 rookie Kristaps Porzingis. He also reached way behind him for another alley-oop dunk from Thornton in another game. So the spring is still there.
Patrick Ewing, the Hall of Fame center who spent most of his career with the New York Knicks, was an assistant coach with the Magic during Howard's time in Orlando. Ewing believes changing your game is part of survival in the NBA.
"Always got to," Ewing said. "Always. Not even tweak, but add. You always got to because if I'm playing this year and I'm very successful at it, the defense is always going to try to adapt to what you're doing, so you always have to add to something or everything is just going to be stale."
Part of Howard's problem is his fear of getting fouled and going to the line. He's never been a good foul shooter, so at times he tries to avoid contact when he gets the ball down low and rushes his shots in the post.
The Rockets want Howard to be aggressive in the post and not worry about the physical contact.
When Ewing coached Howard in Orlando, he preached to him about protecting his body and making adjustments in his game so he could last a long time. Howard says he's in great shape; he takes care of his body and often is seen two hours before games working on his craft with assistant coach Greg Buckner.
Buckner and Howard live close to each other. Over the past two seasons, Buckner has taken Howard to a local gym to work on footwork and spin moves past defenders.
"Right now, we're just trying to get Dwight comfortable with banging and not worry about getting charges," Buckner said. "So now we're trying to build back to what he had before he got hurt and then just the soft touches."
The future for Howard
The Rockets believe in Howard's abilities -- for now. He will be a free agent next summer, and there is some expectation the organization wants to bring him back, but the price is uncertain. The expectations on Howard always has been great, given he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft out of high school.
Across the street from the Toyota Center is a large poster on the side of the parking garage of great, Hall of Fame centers Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone. At the top of the poster is Howard.
Does he belong among such lofty company?
"He has the ability, as long as he's healthy, he still has the physical ability to block shots, rebound and do all the things he did in Orlando," Ewing said. "It's based on his injuries. One of the things I would tell him when I was working with him is at some point, your athleticism is going to fade, and then you have to develop. Before that happens, you should try and develop the other aspects of your game. When that happens, you can still be successful."
Howard shows flashes that he can be a No. 1 option to an offense, or a strong No. 2 because the Rockets already have superstar guard Harden.
At times, Howard is dominating, as he was against Kings center DeMarcus Cousins on Dec. 5. Yet there are other times he's frustrating, as he was against the Lakers on Dec. 17, when he shot 3-of-10, including misses on his first two shots at the rim.
One wonders which Howard you're going to see most nights. But the skill set of a dominant force remains.
"When Dwight is active early, it tends to be that way," interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "When he's made his mind up and he's determined, he will have an impact on the game no matter what happens."