While all other elite big men in the league (Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan, etc.) have expanded their games to the perimeter, Howard hasn’t. Why? Who cares? Thanks to the pick-and-roll, he doesn’t have to.
Nearly every center who’s either in the Hall of Fame or headed there at some point is known for taking over games with the ball in his hands.
At 27, Dwight Howard has already accomplished more than enough to be included on that list. But he doesn't fit like the others.
As the best center in basketball for at least five of his eight years in the NBA and coming off an injury plagued, season-long “disaster” in Los Angeles (where he still managed to average more rebounds per game than anyone else in the league), Howard’s intense value has rightfully been more associated with his dominance on the defensive end than what he’s able to do with the ball.
Relative to other centers who have stormed through the league in similar fashion, Howard hasn’t quite been able to utilize his brilliant athleticism in the post or isolated one-on-one with a defender.
Even in his stretches of peak dominance, smart teams with capable defensive big men have resorted to playing Howard straight up, limiting opportunities for his teammates and either sending him to the free-throw line or forcing a low-percentage attempt from the floor. (That running hook can't get any uglier, can it?)
Howard’s touch in these situations has been rigid, with predictable moves in the post and no real ability to take over with his back to the basket. But the pick-and-roll is his way out.
According to SynergySports, 164 of Howard’s 1,436 offensive possessions last season (11.4 percent) ended with him as the roller on a pick-and-roll. He shot 79.6 percent in these situations, drew a shooting foul nearly once out of every four tries and only turned the ball over 10 percent of the time.
In post-up situations, which made up an unwarranted 45.2 percent of his offensive use last year, Howard turned it over nearly twice as often and scored just 0.74 points per possession.
Feeding him in the post shouldn’t be deleted as an option over the next few seasons (especially with additional help from Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon), but there must be more balance regarding how Howard attacks—especially when taking into account the more he posts up, the less James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons can be involved.
For Howard, last year was a disappointment, but as the roll man he still ranked ninth in the entire league, averaging 1.29 points per possession. Even with a throbbing back and aching shoulders, Howard was still unstoppable flying into the paint after setting a brick-wall screen.
Ending a pick-and-roll, nobody occupies more attention moving towards the basket, forcing the defense to act like water spinning down a drain. Even if Howard doesn’t score or touch the ball on a dive to the rim, the defense’s reaction will almost always open up an opportunity elsewhere, whether it be a wide open three-pointer or a fresh driving/passing lane.
A defense’s primary duty every time down the floor is to prevent any open looks at the rim; few in league history are more effective in that area than Howard, and there’s no easier way to get him the ball there than when he’s moving.
Over the years, Howard has pieced together hundreds of samples that prove his effectiveness in these situations. Here are a few from last season.
This first clip is about as basic as it gets. Kobe Bryant, playing the role of James Harden, uses Howard's screen to drive left. The Golden State Warriors react by doubling Bryant, figuring (correctly) that the closer he gets to the basket, the greater there is a chance of Los Angeles scoring.
Bryant reads the double and immediately throws it back to a rolling Howard near the free-throw line. No dribble is needed as he catches the pass, takes one step towards the basket and finishes a simple left-handed layup.
When someone that big is moving that fast, good luck stopping him.
Next we have Howard playing the role of young Amar'e Stoudemire in Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" offense. Instead of setting a sturdy pick, Howard slips the screen and then rushes to the rim for a quick lob.
It's sequences like this one where Howard can show just how devastating he is on offense. The Lakers are in a broken play, and instead of taking a contested jumper or wildly driving into the lane as the shot clock hits single digits, Steve Nash simply tosses the ball in Howard's direction, somewhere near the basket.
Three Mavericks have both feet in the paint when he catches the pass. That's unstoppable.
If you still aren't convinced of Howard's pure supremacy as the roll man, just look at these two clips.
First we have him playing wide receiver on a rare misguided pass by Nash, reaching back to snare the ball 10 feet above the ground, then quickly finishing with a pretty left-handed hook shot. Then, in the subsequent play, Howard shows his strength, bullying Roy Hibbert (one of the league's most dominant defensive players) beneath the basket and finishing with a point blank bunny at the rim.
Neither play is complicated nor beautiful. But both are efficient. And if the Rockets are able to increase Howard's touches via hard rolls to the rim like the ones you just saw, there's no doubt he'll reclaim the unofficial title of "best center alive." And Houston's offense won't be an easy one to stop.