The Houston Rockets can survive Dwight Howard's injury, but can Dwight?

The Houston Rockets can survive Dwight Howard's injury, but can Dwight?

How you look at Dwight Howard’s worrying absence from his Houston Rockets should fall in line with how you typically refer to that proverbial glass either half-full of water or half-empty with worthless, trachea-scratching air. There is a very good chance that the Rockets can weather Howard’s time on the shelf, and resume their impressive ascension into the West’s sturdy list of championship contenders.

There’s also a very good chance that the Dwight Howard that we knew and tolerated and sometimes loved will never suit up to play as he did in a peak that looks ever so far away right now.

First, the details:

These sorts of injections are usually administered to patients suffering from a lack of cartilage and the requisite bone-on-bone pain that follows. In years past, some NBA players have submitted to a desperate microfracture surgery in order to attempt to stimulate cartilage growth as a last-ditch solution. Those players often return from the surgery and extended absence able to play, but only as an approximation of what they once were.

Scores of patients that have taken in the same marrow treatment that Howard will undergo report a full return to action and activity, free of pain. Those patients aren’t expected to chase LaMarcus Aldridge and Serge Ibaka up and down the court, however, while attempting to dunk their way to 20 points a game on the other end. And, truly, that 2014-15 aspect of things should be the least of Houston’s concerns when it comes to Howard’s actual injury.

Howard’s actual team? They can survive this.

It’s important to note that the Rockets aren’t projecting that Howard will return in a month, but using that four-week term as a starting point is worth dissecting. Houston’s schedule is brutal on paper, with 11 of the team’s 13 games over the next month coming against current playoff teams, including five nationally televised contests starting on Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls. The only two respites Houston has come against the intriguing (but league-worst) Minnesota Timberwolves, and a Brooklyn Nets team that is starting to show a little life. Relative to their own previously moribund existence, of course.

Again, there is absolutely no guarantee that Howard springs back to action following four weeks, but if the rest of the Western Conference playoff bracket continues to play at its current winning percentages, an 8-5 turn from the Rockets during this stretch only dips them down to sixth in the West. That’s down from third and a shot at home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but that’s hardly an invitation to Nervous Time.

That’s also presuming that the teams that would leap-frog the Rockets keep with their current play. The fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers have lost eight of 11, they barely beat Utah on Tuesday night, and there is always the chance that LaMarcus Aldridge may take some time off over the All-Star break to rest his painful left thumb injury. And while the fifth-ranked Los Angeles Clippers have turned it around of late, there remains the possibility that they could fall back to earth a bit.

Houston is not a good defensive rebounding team despite Howard’s presence, which makes the group’s fifth overall ranking in defensive efficiency all the more impressive. Current starting center Joey Dorsey is the group’s second-best defensive rebounder by percentage, but he only plays token minutes to start each half prior to giving way to Josh Smith and a smaller lineup. Interior scoring duties are ably handled by Donatas Motiejunas, and Smith can at least gobble up a good amount of caroms and block shots – even teams don’t fear him (or anyone else in this league, really) nearly as much as Dwight Howard’s looming presence.

The Rockets can handle this, even if Howard’s recovery time needs to be extended, and even while he takes a week or two to get back into NBA shape after sitting out what would be at the very least his 29th game of the season in total after that four-week stretch.

The killer here is what comes next. The idea that Dwight Howard can just get this out of the way, so to speak, over the All-Star break and well before the playoffs hit? It might not be that simple.

Dwight Howard has been banged around, fouled with two arms, and asked to play big minutes while dominating on both ends since for over a decade. He’s played nearly an NBA season’s worth of career playoff minutes. Dwight may have only just turned 29, but our entire view of how we scout players from the high school eligibility era is skewed. Centers of yore only had to play 30 or so games an NCAA season in their early 20s. Sometimes they weren’t even eligible as freshman. And the complex defensive responsibilities and defensive competition in the 1980s and even early 1990s wasn’t even close to what the modern NBA center is up against.

Howard had to battle Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming for 37 minutes a game before he could even legally buy a beer. It’s understandable to assume that Dwight Howard is just hitting his peak at a time when most NBA legends hit theirs at age 29, while possibly on his best team yet, but all signs point to a decline.

Not a steep one, mind you, as Howard has turned in a fantastic year with Houston when healthy, but this is worrying. The injury isn’t even to his left, and jumping, knee. There should be considerable and understandable concern that the treatments the Rockets have given Howard this season (the marrow injection, the plasma rich platelet therapy earlier this season) are just staving off the inevitable.

Whether that means an eventual microfracture operation or a slow descent featuring decreased minutes and increasing amounts of nights off is anyone’s guess. For all we know, glass half-full, Howard could respond to the marrow injection in the same way that most patients do, and bound back to his old self in a month and a half – leaving he and his Rockets a full regular season month left to prepare for what could be a two-month playoff slog.

The Rockets would happily settle from what they’ve seen from Dwight so far this season, even if he does seem a good arm’s length away from the type of contributions he provided in Orlando. Dwight’s that good, and his team is this great. Championship-level “great,” even, if everything goes perfectly.

Until Howard and the Rockets get a chance at that, however, they’ll have to circle the wagons behind the MVP-level play of James Harden, and hope for the best.

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Kelly Dwyer

is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!