With Omer Asik serving as the primary screener, the Rockets scored 0.87 points per possession with ball-handlers in PnR sets and 1.03 with the roll men, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Those numbers were good enough to rank first and 10th, respectively.
Well, the upgrade from Asik to Dwight Howard is going to help out immensely.
To put it in perspective, Asik was a great PnR finisher, scoring 1.02 points per possession as the roll man, placing him 55th among all qualified players. But Howard was better, finishing at No. 9 with 1.29 points per possession. That's a massive difference, and it came during one of Dwight's down years as a roll man.
If the Rockets aren't the No. 1 PnR team in the Association now, I'll be absolutely shocked. And the beauty of their system is that they have two more-than-capable ball-handlers who will allow Dwight to run slightly different sets.
The Houston offense stagnated last season when defenses adjusted, and that happened with increasing frequency because the Rockets weren't able to change things up much. Asik, while a great finisher right around the basket, doesn't possess D12 athleticism, and that limited what Kevin McHale could do with the PnR offense.
With Jeremy Lin
Jeremy Lin is much better off when he's allowed to go to his right, which means that Dwight is almost always going to be rolling to his left and leaving space on Lin's stronger side.
The problem isn't that Lin is incapable of going to the left. The "he can't go left" theme is completely overblown, subject to almost as much hype as the original "Linsanity" craze. Instead, it's more accurate to say that he's not as comfortable going left.
Defenses understand this, and they can anticipate the inevitable move back to his dominant hand, allowing them to pick off passes, swipe the rock away from his hands and prevent easy shots without fear of him beating them to the left.
Take this play against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the postseason, for example.
Everything begins in rather nondescript fashion, as Lin curls around the screen and looks like he's going to be moving to his right throughout the play, finishing in the middle of the paint.
However, things quickly take a turn for the worse.
Derek Fisher fights through the screen rather easily and gets in perfect guarding position, forcing Lin back to his left.
While we can't see facial expressions, something tells me that the Houston floor general isn't exactly thrilled about this development.
Regardless, Lin goes left.
OKC's defense automatically reacts, and you can see the entire defense starts aiming to prevent him from moving back to the right. Everyone in the paint is oriented so that going left is really the only option.
Given the positioning of the primary defenders, Lin would be shooting—and probably making—a high, floating layup if he were on the right side. But he's not.
Lin refuses to take what he's given and instead comes to a complete halt. Working his way to the right, he's put himself in a rather precarious position because there aren't any openings.
He has completely ended any shot he has at finishing the play himself, and the defense has shut off all the primary passing lanes.
Lin's best option would be to kick the ball out to the top of the key and reset with about 10 seconds left on the shot clock, but the safest option isn't the route du jour.
Instead, he throws the ball away. You can see it circled out in no man's land.
Now I don't mean to pick on Lin. He's a very talented PnR ball-handler, even if he's a limited one. That above sequence was just to demonstrate how important it will be for him to stick to the right side whenever possible.
Plus, Lin is very much able to make plays when working to his left.
You can see that below, once more with a play against the Thunder. But that shouldn't be the focus of this shorter sequence. Instead, I want you to pay close attention to the positioning of Asik.
As Lin curls around Asik's weak screen, the big man has already started moving to the basket.
This is the key for Dwight once he inevitably starts running pick-and-roll sets with Lin. He can't wait to function as the trailer because Lin can make the passes through traffic, and it's best that he establish himself in the paint as soon as possible.
This doesn't look like a particularly enviable position, but Lin is able to make the play. He elevates into the air and wraps the pass around to Asik for an easy slam. Score two points for the Rockets.
With Howard, this play will become even easier, which is why it's so important for the big man to immediately crash to the interior of the defense. It's different with James Harden, but with Lin, spacing in the paint isn't as much of an issue.
Plus, it already sounds like the point guard is excited to play with his new teammate in these situations, at least based on this quote delivered to Jason Friedman of Rockets.com:
He’s just an athletic freak. Certain sets with him rolling down the paint toward the basket and using his athleticism, it’s going to be really good for us. I think we can be really creative with the ways that we use him. He’s just an animal when it comes to everything near the rim—he’s thrown down numerous alley-oops already from James. He forces defenders to take an extra step or two to make sure he doesn’t get the ball just because he’s so explosive and so strong, and that gives us so much room to work. He’s either getting a dunk or someone else is left wide-open.
If he rolls down the paint immediately, Howard won't have any trouble thriving next to Lin.
With James Harden
The key for Dwight when working alongside the bearded shooting guard is remembering that he has to function as a secondary option. His first thought must be to clear out space and let Harden go to work.
While Lin is a good scorer in PnR situations, Harden is just a fantastic one. Here's a visual representation of the points per possession they scored as PnR ball-handlers, according to Synergy.
How good was Harden in 2012-13?
He was No. 5 in points per possession as a PnR ball-handler, and he was one of the most heavily used players in the league. The greatness stems from both his efficiency around the basket, his three-point stroke and his knack for drawing contact.
And that's why it's so vital for Dwight to function as a trailer here.
He can use his immense athleticism to finish alley-oops, clean up the trash by putting back any missed shots and just cause general havoc, but he can't get in Harden's way.
What Asik does in the following play against the Phoenix Suns is perfect, and it needs to serve as a blueprint for Howard's play when he sets screens for the bearded 2-guard.
After this hard screen from the Turkish big man, Harden loses his defender and immediately bolts into the paint, where he's faced with a one-on-one battle against Luis Scola.
I think we all know what's going to happen with that.
While Asik functions as the trailer, Harden goes to work.
There's a reason the dashed arrow goes right through Scola; it's almost like he isn't even there.
Asik is in perfect position to follow up any sort of contested miss, but Harden doesn't need any help. He completes the play, drawing a foul in the process and finishing the old-fashioned three-point play at the charity stripe.
This might not have been possible—or at least not as effortless—if Asik had been the first to roll toward the basket. And to demonstrate that, here's one more pick-and-roll set, this time against the Utah Jazz a little earlier in the season.
Asik sets the screen once more here, and I'd like you to note where he sets it. Unlike the last play, he's facing toward Harden's left and forcing his star player to go to his weak hand.
However, unlike Lin, Harden thrives going in both directions. That's a huge benefit for Howard, because he's not immediately limited with respect to his options.
As Harden works his way to the right, Asik starts the roll.
This is not what Howard wants to do. I repeat. This is not what Howard wants to do.
Even though both big men are great threats to finish plays around the basket, they're just overcrowding the driving lanes for Harden. And the defense can easily collapse around the two primary scoring threats.
That's exactly what happens here, although Harden is somehow able to actually finish this play and draw another foul.
I'm not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with his follicular forest.
Harden is more than capable of bailing out his team in just about any offensive situation, but Howard deciding that he must effectively fill the trailer role will promote more success in PnR settings.
The big man should be able to become the most effective roll man in the Association, but he has to think about each and every situation.
With Lin, he has to force the point guard right and then roll with him to the basket to give the Harvard product more options. With Harden, he doesn't have to promote the ball-handler going in a certain direction, although he does have to curtail his instinct to be the first one at the basket.
It might take a little adjustment, but it will make the Houston offense all the more dangerous. At the very least, McHale's squad will be the best pick-and-roll team in basketball.