Dwight Howard is sending signals he's coming to the Rockets. Is that a good thing or not?
Houston Rockets fans are in premature euphoria over the rumors by Marc Stein on ESPN about Dwight Howard. The word is that their team has received "hopeful signals" that the premier big man in free agency wants to join their up-and-coming squad.
The question is, do the Rockets really want him?
If you mean Rockets management, there's little question Howard is their target. They bulldozed their roster last season in a failed bid to make room for him, even though there were precious few reasons for Howard to join Houston.
The question is, should the people who have spent their money, time and vocal cords cheering on this team be excited about acquiring him?
That all depends on how you look at things. Because, like anything else, there are pros and cons to consider regarding Howard joining the Rockets.
Since the days of Karl Malone and John Stockton, the pick-and-roll has become one of the simplest and most effective ways to score at will in the NBA.
The Rockets' James Harden and Jeremy Lin excel at the pick-and-roll. Their partner in dime, Omer Asik, sets great screens, but as a target for the pass after the pick, he's something less than threatening.
Enter Dwight Howard.
D12 can finish like a bull in a china shop—no defender can stop him once he has momentum toward the hoop. A lob pass is also tailor made for him, as Dwight can finish above the rim better than anyone, thanks to his incredible hops and reach, the NBA's all-time highest.
It doesn't even matter if the pass is a tough one. Howard has the hands of an NFL wideout, and he'll pull in what's thrown to him.
This year's stats are misleading because of both his health and the challenges of learning, in essence, three different offenses. But in 2011-12, Dwight scored 1.36 points per pick-and-roll play, which is good for second place in the NBA, while shooting a stellar 74 percent.
The "bull in the china shop" analogy is appropriate too. Howard explodes into defenses with such zest that he draws extra coverage, which would open the floor for Harden and Lin.
Not only that, but he became the best big pick-and-roll man in the NBA while working with Jameer Nelson, who was a borderline starter even during his best years in Orlando, and a Steve Nash far past his prime. Imagine what he could do with Harden and Lin as his guards.
Jack Winter of Warriors World was recently quoted on ESPN.com as saying Howard reportedly "doesn't like offensive systems built around the pick-and-roll." Huh? That's like saying Babe Ruth doesn't like offenses built around home runs.
Howard will go down in the annals of the NBA as one of the best pick-and-roll finishers of all time.
Dwight Howard played through two serious injuries this past season. While everyone would commend him for his tenacity, at the minimum, such an action delays the healing process. At worst, more health problems can be created.
On February 15th, Howard (via Lakers Nation) talked about the problems with the torn labrum in his right shoulder suffered in January and the challenges of recovering from offseason back surgery.
Howard said this about the shoulder tear: "It's not going to change. It's not going away."
And as for his back, Howard said, “Whoever has had back surgery knows, it takes awhile, it takes a full year to recover from back surgery."
If you were in the World Series of Poker and Howard's health were a hand, you wouldn't go all in on it. But that's exactly what Houston must do by offering him a max deal. A Howard slowed or sidelined by injury will decimate the Rockets' cap situation and championship hopes.
That said, Howard played 76 games this year with the Lakers and averaged almost 36 minutes a game, despite his injuries. He got flack for being proud of that, which I both understand and think is a shame.
People tend to judge a player when he pats himself on the back for his accomplishments. But as someone who has had back pain, I know it can be excruciating to the point of debilitating. Playing through that in addition to pain in his shoulder is courageous and noteworthy.
Houston just has to hope it wasn't also foolhardy on Howard's part.
Last year, the Rockets had no defense for their lack of defense.
Per Hoopdata.com, they were 28th in the league in opponents points scored per game, 23rd in defensive plays rate (measuring the combination of blocks, steals and charges they caused as a team) and 18th in opponents' true shooting percentage.
The addition of Howard would improve all three ratings.
Howard is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year for good reason: He covers the paint like a blanket. He blocks shots and alters shots and causes teams to shoot farther from the net than they ordinarily would, which lowers their shooting percentage.
When he leaves the paint, he's effective too, slowing down running attacks and disrupting pick-and-rolls.
Further, his defense can actually win the Rockets more games. Per Basketball-Reference.com, in the last six years, Howard has led the league in defensive win shares four times, came in third in 2011-12 and came in sixth this season.
Heck, at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference—where Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is the equivalent of Justin Timberlake—an entire paper about interior defense analytics was entitled "The Dwight Effect." Here are highlights:
…it could be argued that Howard’s mere presence “blocks” shots before they happen. The presence of a truly dominant interior force can augment the spatial behavior of the offense in the same way that a dominant cornerback changes the behavior of a quarterback. While it is easy to tally up things like blocks, rebounds, and steals, it’s much harder to measure the kind of disruption or the strategic augmentations that dominant interior defenders like Dwight Howard create. We define “The Dwight Effect” as the ability of an interior defender to reduce the efficiency of an opponent’s shooting behavior.
When statistical research papers are named after you, it's clear that you're the gold standard when it comes to defense.
As recently as two years ago—before he essentially flashed his old team the middle digit—Orlando Magic TV commentator Matt Guokas called Howard a better defender than Bill Russell, according to Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel. And the NBA invented goaltending in an attempt to neutralize Russell—that's how dominant he was.
Yes, Howard came in 14th in DPOY voting this year. But if he is healthy, there is every reason to believe he would return to his previous lofty standards. Simply put, he is a game-changer on defense.
Which is perfect for the Rockets, who definitely need to change their game on that side of the ball.
I've discussed this in several articles. The Howard who started in this league had a ready smile and an infectious enthusiasm.
That Howard hasn't been seen for several years.
I've argued that it might be a matter of environment: Howard was comfortable with his longtime Orlando Magic core. So when management began to break it up (rightly), for Howard—who, refreshingly, seems more sensitive than most professional athletes—it might have felt like a family breaking up.
Perhaps that's what caused his finger pointing, coaching criticisms and trade demands.
Assuming all of the above is true, this year's family might have felt to Howard like the Corleones, with Kobe Bryant as the Don. Perhaps that explains the unwillingness to listen to teammates, the dissatisfaction with the coaches and the frustration at his voice not being heard.
If his attitude is based on environment, there's every chance the Rockets' cheerful group can reactivate the fun-loving Howard. This group cheers for one another, indulges in complex pregame handshakes and secret in-game signs and seems to have genuine affection for one another.
It might be just what the doctors ordered for Howard (if the doctors were Howard, Fine and Howard).
It easily be, however, that life has soured Howard. If that's the case, it's just a matter of time until the Rockets are riddled with a problem that sunk one team and derailed another.
Howard has connection with former Rocket Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison. Jamison would love a ring; MWP, assuming he's amnestied, would love another.
There's been a trend for about a decade now of veterans who are hungry for a ring joining teams that are likely to win one.
It started with Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining the Lakers in an ill-fated but much-publicized quest. It's continued in this season, as Ray Allen (with Miami) and Tracy McGrady (with San Antonio) will get a shot at a title.
Here's the thing: Houston's bench is not deep or skilled. Carlos Delfino, if he returns, is a terrific fill-in for Harden, and can even step in at small forward. Patrick Beverley or Lin, whomever is coming off the bench at any given moment, are competent contributors. But beyond those three, the reserves can get sketchy.
With Howard in the fold, this team instantly becomes next year's Western Conference darlings. They'll have competition from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Golden State Warriors and the LA Clippers (if they retain Chris Paul). But this is likely the Spurs' last stand (although they've proved me wrong before, to my delight), and no other teams stand out.
Of the four teams mentioned, the Rockets, with Howard and Harden, would likely be the presumptive favorites. And Harden is already showing a penchant and willingness for recruiting. If he enlists Howard to join his cause, the team, which will be straddling the cap, will stand a chance of acquiring standout bench players for minimum salaries.
A well-stocked roster is critical for a run at the title.
In this article, the pros outweigh the cons. I believe they do in reality as well.
One thing is for sure, though: If Howard does join the team, it would be the most exciting year for Houston Rockets basketball since Yao Ming and "T-Mac" roamed the court.
And with a more talented overall roster, it would likely be the best Rockets squad to take the court in two decades.