When the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Dwight Howard, they were thrilled simply to get the best center in the game wearing the forum blue and gold. If any team understands the importance of a dominant big man to a championship team, it's the Lakers.
But if you were to give the Lakers' brass truth serum, they'd likely tell you that it is Dwight Howard's defense that they're most excited about. As a three-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner, Howard is the game's premier defensive player and one of the elite difference makers on that end of the floor.
With that being the case, there's no reason that the Lakers can't be one of the top defensive teams in the league, should they build a scheme around Howard and use his strengths to anchor them on that side of the ball.
The first principle of any defense that has Howard patrolling the paint is to funnel all penetration to him so he can block and alter shots.
On this possession you see the Kings trying to attack Pau Gasol and Steve Nash in the pick-and-roll on the left side of the floor. When the Kings' point guard splits the pick, he collapses the defense and then kicks the ball to the weak side to a shooter spotting up. Kobe Bryant then does exactly what he's supposed to by closing out hard and forcing the shooter to put the ball on the floor to the baseline side. Howard, in perfect position, is ready and waiting for the ball-handler and blocks the shot.
This type of defensive coverage should be a mainstay of the Lakers' scheme. Every player is doing his part to jump out on ball-handlers to make them put the ball on the floor, and when shooters receive the ball in spot-up situations, they're forced to drive into areas where Howard can be the difference between scoring two points or not.
This principle of funneling players towards help doesn't just exist when closing out on shooters, though. When the Lakers are defending the way they need to be, they'll try to keep the middle of the floor open and by pressuring ball-handlers so that cutters are met by Howard patrolling the paint.
Here, the Kings are again trying to attack Gasol but this time with a post-up play. After the Kings run some actions to get DeMarcus Cousins the ball in the post, they try to work Pau over by bullying him on the block. Gasol does a good job of standing his ground while Kobe dips to the backside block to help on Howard's man should he have to rotate to help. Kobe's man then smartly cuts to the front of the rim, but Howard is already in position to help and blocks the shot away.
Plays like this aren't pretty and look to be ones where the team D is compromised, but they show that any scheme that accounts for helping Howard be a roamer can be a successful one.
Teams that recognize Howard as a disruptor off the ball will then try to involve him in actions with the ball to try and remove him from the paint. This, though, can also be thwarted, simply because of Howard's ability to move his feet and instinctively be in the right positions.
On this possession, the Kings try to run multiple pick-and-rolls with Howard's man setting screens, but see how difficult it can be to gain an advantage. In the first action, Howard expertly hedges to help slow the ball-handler and recovers to his own man to disrupt his drive into the paint. When the Kings run the action again, Howard shows great patience to stay with the ball-handler for longer to allow Nash to recover, ultimately helping to force a kick-out pass to a shooter that misses.
Howard's range on plays like this is one of the things that make him so great on defense. He shows an ability to cover ground from the front of the rim to the three-point line and then back to the paint, all while never giving up the advantage or losing discipline.
Of course, even with Howard anchoring the defense there will be issues. The Lakers are bound to surrender plays in transition and will get beat off the dribble in isolation. Howard, though a great help defender, can only do so much to erase everything.
That said, if the Lakers can find the proper floor balance on offense and stop turning the ball over, they can help eliminate some of their problems defending in the open court. And, when defending in isolation, if they can simply funnel penetration towards the baseline to where Howard (and Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill) wait to contest shots, they can limit teams' ability to crash the paint off the dribble.
There's a lot to do to make sure that the Lakers reach their ceiling on defense. But with Howard in the paint and perimeter players who are smart enough to follow the game plan, they can do just that.