With the acquisition of perennial All-Star Dwight Howard, the Houston Rockets have become immediate championship contenders. But Omer Asik, who will most likely be moved before this year’s trade deadline, was a productive center last year in Houston’s dangerous offense—sixth-best in the league in ESPN's Hollinger offensive efficiency ratings at 106.7. So why is Howard such a massive upgrade on offense?
Though Howard considers himself a post-up big man, he’s most dangerous in the pick-and-roll. Last season as a Laker, he averaged 0.74 points per possession on post-ups, according to Synergy Sports, compared to 1.29 points per possession on plays ending with him receiving the ball off the pick-and-roll.
But it’s more than that: Not only is he a threat for a dunk on the roll, but his mere presence barreling down the lane sucks in perimeter defenders. On a Houston team that places a particular emphasis on three-point shooting, Howard’s court gravity will prove even more valuable.
Think about Orlando for a moment. Howard turned Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson into All-Star-caliber talents because he drew so much attention. They were able to camp out on the three-point line and weaponize the floor spacing.
But it all starts with a solid pick. Howard is particularly adept at not only making contact on picks, but also releasing quickly to apply extra pressure on the roll man’s defender.
Notice how wide Howard sets his feet. Even the 6'8" Moe Harkless can’t maneuver his way around Howard and gets caught trailing Steve Nash. This creates a two-on-one against Orlando’s Kyle O’Quinn, forcing him to step up and handle Nash while Howard rolls in behind. As a big man, O’Quinn is not quick enough to cut off the baseline, and Nash is able to squeeze by and wrap a pass around to Howard for a dunk.
Though the play ends with an easy two points, there’s a secondary danger here. Howard’s ability to set the pick and release toward the rim extremely quickly forces Tobias Harris to pinch in from the weak side, leaving Metta World Peace wide open. Though World Peace is not the greatest three-point shooter, think of it this way: On the Rockets, this would be Chandler Parsons, James Harden or any number of three-point shooters they’ll most likely trot out.
Though Nash doesn’t go for the cross-court pass, it’s undoubtedly an option on this play. The mere threat of Howard forces Harris to over-rotate and creates secondary options off the pick-and-roll.
Now let’s compare this to Asik. Though he’s taller than Howard by an inch or two, his lankier frame and less physically imposing presence usually translate to his setting of the pick taking an extra tick longer. The difference is subtle; he’s still a large center planting himself in front of a much smaller guard. But his inability to quickly transition from pick to roll gives the defense an extra half-second to rotate.
Despite Asik’s solid pick, Utah’s Gordon Hayward is already recovering toward the rim just as Asik begins to roll. Derrick Favors, therefore, has time to diagnose the play and step in front of the rolling Asik as a help defender.
Even so, the 6'10" Favors shouldn’t be able to disrupt an already downhill Asik. But this is why he’s no Howard: Asik doesn’t have great leaping ability or athleticism and instead chooses to finesse his way by Favors. The result is a running hook shot that misses.
If this were Howard, he would elevate and dunk the ball. When he’s healthy, what makes him so dangerous is his finishing radius. Anywhere within the paint, he’s a threat for an alley-oop or a rim-shattering dunk. When he rises up to throw the ball down, few defenders in the league even dare to challenge him—it’s not worth the minimal contact leading to an and-one.
Here Howard receives a pass off the pick-and-roll, forgoing a dribble to dunk the ball. Notice Harris under the hoop—he doesn’t dare to come near Howard, leaving him for an easy two points. Simply by reputation, Howard creates an area void of defenders for himself.
But not Asik. Defenses aren’t afraid to challenge him at the rim. Here, MarShon Brooks of the Brooklyn Nets has no qualms jumping to contest Asik. Asik, instead of thundering a dunk on his head, tries a scoop layup with his left hand to flank Brooks’ contest. The wild shot misses, and Asik undermines his own seven-inch height advantage for no apparent reason.
All of this is about finishing radius. When Howard is within five or six feet of the rim, he’s a threat to dunk the ball. When he’s rumbling down the lane, he’s an alley-oop threat. The same isn’t the case for Asik. Unless he’s directly under the rim, he’s not dunking the ball. Furthermore, he isn’t strong enough to earn such positioning by force; he usually lucks his way into prime positioning under the rim.
Even worse, Asik’s finishing rate at the rim is pretty terrible for centers: He only finished 54.36 percent of his attempts around the rim last year, compared to 60.64 percent for Howard (via NBA Stats).
The pick-and-roll is certainly Howard’s most lethal offensive weapon, but he’s not a horrible post-up player either. In his last few seasons in Orlando, he began developing an array of post moves and some semblance of a respectable post game. Although his injuries last year limited his overall effectiveness, it’s still a weapon he can utilize in Houston.
As one of the league’s greatest post players, Kevin McHale, Houston’s head coach, will undoubtedly help Howard take his game on the block to the next level. But in Houston’s up-tempo offense, there’s the question of when Howard would even be able to unleash it.
The answer, simply, is in transition.
Well, secondary transition. If the initial break doesn’t create an opportunity, the confusion among the defense can often lead to easy post positioning opportunities. For a player as strong as Howard, he can catch a defender out of position, seal him off and catch the ball five feet from the rim. It only happened a few times on the Lakers last year, but when it did, it was extremely effective.
Notice how he’s able to pin Marc Gasol, the Defensive Player of the Year, beneath the rim with 18 seconds left on the shot clock in the photo below.
This is because Howard sprinted up the court, turned, spun and sealed to win paint position. Handling Howard on the move is one of the most difficult defensive tasks in the NBA, and in a transition situation with little help on defense, it becomes especially treacherous. Here’s the play in full:
In Houston’s offense last year, Asik was tasked with rebounding the ball and hitting an outlet guard. The rest was a jog up the floor because Asik isn’t particularly useful in transition situations.
Houston’s push-the-ball mentality encouraged early three-pointers or layups. For the slow-footed Asik, it wasn’t necessarily worth it to sprint up the floor only to have opponents transition to offense seconds later. Therefore, he often lay back and jogged up the floor to conserve energy. Here’s Asik inbounding the ball:
This is where Howard’s value shines through. He is a huge asset in transition; he can suck in defenders if he establishes post position early in the shot clock, opening up three-point shots even more.
As you can see below, though, Asik is nowhere to be found.
It’s not that Asik doesn’t hustle; he’s often much more effort than skill. But he’s mostly useless on offense, particularly in transition. With Howard on the floor, that won’t be the case. Houston’s already potent transition offense will add another weapon.
What’s so frustrating about Howard, at least on the floor, is his unwillingness to recognize that the pick-and-roll is his greatest strength. In Houston’s offense with Jeremy Lin (if he doesn’t get traded) and Harden, Howard will be on the receiving end of a lot of dunks out of those sets. Couple that with transition post-ups, and we’ll likely be seeing the Howard of old to whom we were once accustomed.