Breaking Down the Best Way for Los Angeles Lakers to Use Dwight Howard
Just fine, thanks.
Facetious answers aside, there's plenty of reason to believe Dwight's debut season in LA will be a success. He's an All-World talent who will make the Lakers better on both ends of the floor if head coach Mike Brown and his staff put him to proper use.
Back to School?
As Bleacher Report's Rob Mahoney recently noted, Howard may not be the best fit for the Princeton offense that the Lakers are looking to implement. Superman isn't exactly a wunderkind in the high post, from where the Princeton's "four high" principles would deign him to operate. He's a solid passer as is, but sports neither the ball-handling nor the shooting ability to truly be a triple threat from that spot.
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Likewise, if the Lakers were to play him closer to the basket in the Princeton offense, his mere presence may well inhibit the cutting off the wing that makes such a scheme so efficient and effective when firing on all cylinders.
That being said, the Princeton offense isn't likely to comprise the entirety of the Lakers' sets, nor would anyone expect Brown and company to ignore the sweet, sweet music that Howard and Steve Nash can (and probably will) make together in the pick-and-roll game.
For his part, Nash is one of the premier pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the NBA today, if not of all time. He spent much of his most recent tenure with the Phoenix Suns making mobile, athletic big men look like studs on the hardwood.
Nash's most prolific such partnership came alongside Amar'e Stoudemire. Like Howard, Stoudemire is (or, at least, was) a powerful finisher and agile big man with the hands to pull in just about any pass that came his way. Here, we see Stoudemire setting a quick screen for Nash and promptly slipping to the basket, whereupon he fields a beautiful bounce pass from Nash and takes it to the rim with authority:
In this next clip, Nash and Stoudemire essentially switch spots on the floor, with Nash dribbling to the side and STAT rolling to the middle. The spacial orientations are different, but the results are the same:
Lest you think Nash's pick-and-roll proficiency was limited to his time with Stoudemire, here's a clip of Nash running the same action with Marcin Gortat, who was, at one point, Howard's backup in Orlando:
On a Roll
As it happens, Howard is bigger, more powerful and more athletic than either Stoudemire or Gortat, and ranks among the most effective roll men in basketball. Not surprisingly, Howard came in third in the NBA last season in efficiency at the rim among those with at least four such attempts per game, converting 74.4 percent of his shots in close (per Hoopdata).
It's Howard's combination of size and otherworldly leaping ability that makes him such a fantastic finisher. Throw in his hands and his feet, and you wind up with plays like this:
And, where the bounce pass is most effective, this:
That's three different Magic players feeding Howard the ball on the move, none of whom can so much as hold a candle to his most likely Lakers purveyors. Aside from Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are both superb passers capable of operating as ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll.
Contrary to popular belief, the Black Mamba knows full well how to get the ball to his teammates. Whether he decides to or not in any given situation is another story, though the fact that he's averaged better than four assists per season since 1999-00 would suggest otherwise.
In any case, Kobe's reputation for ball hoggery needn't take away from his actual skill, which will be put to good use with Howard on the receiving end. Here, we see Kobe patiently setting up the pick-and-roll with Pau before delivering a crisp bounce pass in traffic:
The more intriguing partnership to watch for, though, is that between Gasol and Howard. Gasol is as skilled as any big man in basketball, and was particularly impressive playing the two-man game with fellow giant Andrew Bynum (now of the Philadelphia 76ers):
Notice how Gasol and Bynum were able to run the pick-and-roll from just about anywhere on the floor. This, despite the fact that Bynum, while big and tall, isn't exactly known for his mobility or his athleticism.
Howard, on the other hand, can run laps around Bynum in those respects. Bynum may be a bit bigger and longer, but Howard is quicker on his feet and has a wider range within which to catch lobs, thanks in no small part to his prodigious hops.
Protect This House
Where Dwight's advantage over Drew is most pronounced, though, is on the defensive end.
Simply put, Howard is a one-man wrecking crew on defense. A five-time All-Defensive selection and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Howard can dominate the game from that end of the floor, thanks in no small part to the incredible agility and athleticism—along with an impeccable understanding of timing and spacing—that allow him to block and alter nearly every shot within a wide range on the floor:
It's no wonder, then, that the Magic held their opponents to fewer than 96 points per 100 defensive possessions that Dwight played over the last four seasons. The Lakers, on the other hand, never gave up fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions with Bynum on the floor during his seven-year stay in LA.
This won't surprise anyone who's followed Bynum's career in LA. He's always had the requisite physical tools to be an ace defender, but seemingly lacked the consistent focus and intensity to take care of business on that end of the floor.
For example, when Bynum had his head in the game, the seven-footer would be eager to take on point guards in the pick-and-roll and either force a missed shot:
Or come up with a block:
But, when Bynum's head was elsewhere, he'd fail to fight through screens or even ignore his hedging responsibilities entirely, resulting in plays like this:
Bynum's enigmatic efforts on defense often became points of frustration for the Lakers. They should have no such problems with Howard, who's long been known for "bringing it" on a nightly basis, as any elite superstar should. Even amidst his ongoing drama with the Magic, Howard hardly (if ever) took nights off and managed to impose his will on just about every game in which he played.
That sort of consistency will be a sight for sore Lakers eyes, after the team ranked dead last in defensive plays (i.e. blocks, steals and charges) per 100 possessions last season, according to Hoopdata.
Whether Dwight's arrival will be enough to vault the Lakers over the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference hierarchy remains to be seen. On paper, though, Howard is clearly an upgrade at the "five" and, if used properly—as a pick-and-roll powerhouse on offense and as an enforcer on defense—should vault the Lakers back into the championship conversation, at the very least.
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