How Dwight Howard Can Transform into Elite Offensive Star Under Hakeem Olajuwon

Adam FromalFeatured Columnist IVApril 3, 2017

Apr 5, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) warms-up before a game against the Memphis Grizzlies at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

There's no doubt that Dwight Howard is a superstar. Even given his declining popularity, the center is still one of the biggest household names in the NBA, both literally and figuratively. 

However, that stardom doesn't stem from his offensive game.

It instead comes from his defensive play, highlight-reel blocks and dunks, ear-to-ear grin and impressive work on the glass. Howard has always been a great offensive player, but it's tough to refer to him as an "elite offensive star." 

This summer, D12 is setting out to change that. 

For the second time in his career, Dwight is turning to a former member of the Houston Rockets. Some guy named Hakeem Olajuwon who possesses arguably the greatest set of post moves we've ever seen. The goal is to transform himself into an offensive powerhouse so that he and James Harden can form the best inside-outside combo in the Association. 

In order for that to happen, Dwight has to make good use of Hakeem's tutelage. He couldn't ask for a better teacher, after all. 


Hakeem's Track Record

One important key to remembering when setting expectations for Howard is that Hakeem's track record isn't as spotless as you might expect. 

Ever since he pulled the plug on his legendary playing career, the Dream has started working with promising players in the hopes of making them take the next step. He mentored Emeka Okafor back in 2005, then worked with Yao Ming in 2007.

Kobe Bryant was the pupil du jour in 2009, and the improvement in the post was palpable. It's a major reason that the Mamba has been able to remain effective as he ages, but we don't have specific numbers to use here because the Synergy Sports (subscription required) database only goes back to the 2009-10 season. 

I can tell you that Kobe averaged 0.97 points per possession in the post right after working with Hakeem, good for 30th in the NBA, but there's nothing to compare it to, so the improvement remains a purely subjective observation. 

Since we began tracking post-up plays, the Rockets legend has worked with six different players for prolonged time: Dwight (2010), LeBron James (2011), Carmelo Anthony (2012), Amar'e Stoudemire (2012), JaVale McGee (2012) and Kenneth Faried (2012). 

The two small forwards both saw their points per possession decline slightly after working with Hakeem, but that was negated by a massive uptick in the number of times they went back to the basket.

LeBron went from 1.04 points per possession on 205 plays to 0.94 on 325, so the work he did with Hakeem clearly helped him improve his confidence. That also translated into a more well-rounded game that terrified defenses and increased his effectiveness in other areas. 

As for 'Melo, he lost 0.03 points per possession but jumped from 185 post plays in 2011-12 to 470 in 2012-13. I think the New York Knicks are satisfied with that improvement, though they are presumably even happier with Stoudemire.

The begoggled big man increased the frequency with which he went to work in the post, and he improved from 0.77 points per possession to 0.92. In 2011-12, he was outdone by 105 players. Only 32 could say the same in 2012-13, although he was limited by injuries. 

However, Hakeem's work wasn't all positive in the summer of 2012. Both Denver Nuggets big men he worked with (Faried and McGee), declined rather significantly. They went to the post with about the same frequency and were far more ineffective. 

Now, how about Dwight? 

In 2009-10, Dwight went to work in the post a staggering 1,051 times. He scored 0.9 points per possession, good for 67th in the NBA. After working with Hakeem, as you can see up above, he was even better. The 2010-11 campaign saw the Orlando Magic big man post up 1,113 times, and he was still more effective, scoring 0.93 points per possession. 


Dwight Howard's History

Dwight still needs help. 

There's no way around that. While he received a nice boost for one season after working with Hakeem for the first time, he's quickly fallen back to earth. And then some. 

Above you can see how Dwight's points per possession numbers in the post have fared over the last four seasons. There's a slight improvement after the summer work with Olajuwon, but then the decline was rather precipitous. 

Not only did he lose his efficiency with his back to the basket, but he stopped using that skill. Dwight attempted less than 700 shots in the post during each of the past two seasons. While that number is depressed by injury, the rate still doesn't match up with his prime Magic days. 

Howard has fallen into the habit of using the exact same move every time. He loves rolling to one side and elevating before he lofts up an easy jump hook at the basket. 

I didn't have to search through Dwight's post moves for long in order to find this example. It was literally the first one I came across, and it works perfectly. 

Guarded by Tim Duncan during the postseason, Dwight takes the ball and posts up on the left block. He has room to work, and just about everyone knows what he's doing with this, hence the arrow indicating his plan of attack. 

Sure enough, the big man drives to his right, setting himself up for the jump-hook attempt. 

Howard elevates and gets the ball well above the rim, quite a bit out of the range of Duncan's outstretched arms. 

The ball falls through for two points. 

While this move remains effective and has served Howard well, he's failed to expand his arsenal of post moves over the years, and defenses are catching up to him. 


Make Use of His Athleticism and Strength

The first thing Hakeem has to do is convince Howard to keep using his immense physical tools. Although the current Houston center isn't the tallest player at his position, he's an absolute physical specimen, given his tremendous strength and athleticism. 

Plus the shoulders. 

Howard's biggest advantage in the post comes from his ability to elevate quickly and get the ball into an unblockable position, as you can see him do below. 

Normal human beings shouldn't be able to elevate that high without a running start, and Howard's wingspan allows him to put the ball well above 10 feet. The only things stopping him from making the shot in this situation are A) himself, if he misfires, or B) a foul. 

Hakeem's greatness didn't stem from athletic gifts. Was he a great athlete? Sure, but it was technique that pushed him over the top and made him into a Hall of Famer. 

The Dream doesn't have to make Howard follow directly in his footsteps. If he can work on his fundamentals while convincing him to continue making use of the physical tools, then that's in Dwight's best interest. 

While Dwight uses that hook shot quite often, he's still not particularly effective with it. 

According to Basketball-Reference, Howard shot only 45.6 percent on hooks during the 2012-13 campaign. As Tyler Wasserman of points out, that's below the league average of 47.1, and things don't get much better when you break it down by side: 

Looking deeper into the hook shot, Howard shot 49.4% on hooks from the left side of the basket, compared to just 42.0% from the right side, his strong hand. On his tip-ins, however, he shot 52.2% from the right side versus just 14.3% from the left. These are two areas that should be a major focus for Howard going into his fresh start with the Rockets.

Howard's shots aren't contested strongly enough for him to be shooting such low percentages. There's a mechanical flaw in there somewhere—personally, I think he looks too stiff going up for his hooks—and Hakeem must find it then correct it. 


It's All About Footwork

Based on the video above, you'd think Dwight could teach a masterclass on footwork. You know, since he talks about it like such an authority. But there are two main problems here.

  1. Dwight doesn't always display great footwork. Some plays are brilliant, but he often forgets that he's allowed to move his feet in creative, effective ways. 
  2. He never shows his feet in the video! Shouldn't a class on footwork actually contain a couple of examples? 

Now compare that to this video: 

You can definitely see Hakeem's feet going to work and embarrassing David Robinson, one of the greatest defensive centers of all time. Just as he was throughout his career, Hakeem is quite impressive. 

This is the primary area in which Hakeem can help out his protege. 

It's not about teaching Howard new moves. Although the Dream Shake would be an unstoppable tool in his arsenal, Dwight already knows how to use enough fakes and shimmies when he's working with his back to the basket. 

He's comfortable using a drop-step. He understands the concept of an up-and-under. His spin move in particular is quite effective when he chooses to use it. 

The main problem is that Howard doesn't take advantage of these techniques all that often. He lacks the confidence to think outside the box and use anything other than his bread and butter. 

Embedded is a highlight reel of post moves from his time with the Orlando Magic. Almost everything falls into the same category: quick shots to the sides of defenders and that sweeping hook. There's little creativity, and while it works, you aren't seeing the misses that accompanied the makes. 

Hakeem has to convince Dwight that he can make these shots. He must teach him not only how to make them but also when to use them. It's the latter that is particularly important for the center. 

The newest member of the Rockets has all the tools necessary to be a great offensive player, minus a jumper that isn't developing anytime soon. 

He's a behemoth in the paint, already has a go-to move (albeit one that needs work) and can sky above just about anyone guarding him. There's a reason that he's already averaged over 20 points per game four times in his impressive career. 

Now he just needs to gain confidence and start using the moves he's learning with much greater frequency. 

Last time Hakeem worked with Dwight, he upped his scoring average by 4.6 points per game and significantly improved his efficiency in the post. If we see a similar trend in 2013-14, the Rockets will inevitably be one of the most dangerous teams in the Western Conference. 

When Houston opens the season against the Charlotte Bobcats on October 30, expect to see Dwight show off some of his new moves. If he sticks to the same old jump-hook, then this offseason will have been for naught.