Why It's Time for Dwight Howard to Abandon the Low Post for the Pick-and-Roll

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Why It's Time for Dwight Howard to Abandon the Low Post for the Pick-and-Roll
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Apologies to Hakeem Olajuwon, who has presumably done a great job teaching Dwight Howard how to be more effective in the low post, but it's time for the big man to abandon the blocks in favor of the pick-and-roll. 

While D12 was with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was still an effective player even while playing injured. He thrived running PnR sets alongside Steve Nash and anyone else capable of passing him the ball. His post moves were just about the same as they've always been, though. 

Howard's sweeping jump-hook worked, and he could overpower smaller defenders, but that was about it. There wasn't much finesse in his arsenal, and he struggled to thrive with his back to the basket. 

Something has to change now that he's with the Rockets. And even if he gets better in the post, that something has to be his attitude toward the pick-and-roll. 

It's time for him to abandon his weakness for his strength. 

 

The Houston Rockets Were Dependent on the Pick-and-Roll Last Year

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Howard is moving to the Houston Rockets, and that means that he has to change his style of play in order to fit in with the personnel around him and the schemes that Kevin McHale runs. In Orlando, everything revolved around him, but a few lackluster years and transitions now means that he must cater to James Harden

During the 2012-13 season, the Rockets were almost completely dependent on the pick-and-roll. In fact, they may have been dependent to a fault, but I'm not sure that's even possible going forward since they have a premier PnR ball-handler and finisher. 

PnR ball-handlers used 12.4 percent of the team's possession, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), which defines a possession as one that ends in a field-goal attempt, free-throw attempt or turnover. Roll men were used 5.4 percent of the time, making for a combined 17.8 percent use in PnR sets. 

That's a remarkably high number, especially for a team that pushed anything and everything in transition, refusing to slow down and concede half-court set attempts as it strove for the fastest pace in the league. 

Fortunately, the Rockets are really good at finishing plays that start with one of the sets in question. 

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

Above you can see the ranks of last year's Western Conference playoff teams for points per possession among PnR ball-handlers (on the left) and PnR roll men (on the right). 

No team was better at the former than the Rockets, and they still ranked 10th in the latter with Omer Asik functioning as the primary roll man. Notice a certain team that was better? 

I'm not talking about the Los Angeles Clippers, who have the luxury of some guy named Chris Paul running the show. Nor am I worried about the San Antonio Spurs, as Gregg Popovich's system and Tony Parker's dominance always result in some pretty great numbers. 

The other resident of the Staples Center is the one that matters: the Los Angeles Lakers. After all, Howard was the lead man when it came to finishing PnR sets, so it's rather telling that the Lakers finished the season as an upper echelon team in that category. 

Now that Howard and Asik are both in Houston, it's entirely possible that the Rockets could finish at No. 1 in both relevant aspects of the offense. It's just up to D12 to accept that and maximize his talent. 

 

Dwight Howard is Better than Omer Asik

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

As effective as Asik was last season, Howard is a lot better at finishing plays once he sets the screen. You might have gotten a hint at that just by comparing the Rockets' team performance to the Lakers' output earlier in the article, but that's still contingent on too many outside factors. 

Let's just look at the pure individual numbers, courtesy of Synergy

Player Points Per Possession Rank FG% %Fouled %Turnovers %Score
Dwight Howard 1.29 9 79.6 23.2 10.4 68.9
Omer Asik 1.02 55 57.8 13.6 10.2 53.6

While Asik was better at minimizing his turnovers, he was still nowhere near as effective as the new starting center. That difference in both points per possession and field-goal percentage is just massive. 

Two skills give Howard a big advantage. 

First is his incredible athleticism. While Asik is definitely a mobile center, he doesn't have the vertical abilities that D12 possesses, and that prevents him from getting as many easier opportunities.

Take this play against the San Antonio Spurs, for example.  

All screenshots from Synergy's video databases.

Howard begins by setting a screen for Pau Gasol, running that big-man game that the Lakers used so often after Kobe Bryant's ruptured Achilles knocked him out of the lineup. 

Gasol will reject the screen, but Howard still rolls to the basket, which is currently crowded with defenders. 

At this point, it doesn't appear as though Gasol has any appealing options. 

He's cut off from the basket, and Howard is covered by multiple Spurs. 

It doesn't matter. 

The Spaniard knows that he can just lob the ball up, counting on his teammate to elevate above everyone else and corral the rock. That's exactly what happens, and once Howard has the ball, he can easily finish on the right side of the basket. 

Also giving the big Houston acquisition an advantage is his physicality. It allows him to finish over small defenders and absorb contact when it's delivered, as he does against the Indiana Pacers here. 

Howard sets up for another roll to the basket by setting a pick for Nash. Roy Hibbert is playing well off him because there's really no threat of a D12 pick-and-pop. 

Once Howard establishes position, Nash passes him the rock. Surprisingly, the entry pass is a little off target, but Howard has good enough hands that he can still reel it in. 

Now he just has to deal with a giant in the paint, and the giant is rather good at playing defense and maintaining a consistent rim-protecting presence. 

Hibbert goes straight up, but Howard draws contact, double clutches and finishes the play with an and-1. It's a basket that very few big men can make, yet it's a rather routine effort for D12. 

The main point here is that the Rockets found a lot of success running pick-and-rolls while the Turkish big man was the primary screener. With Howard, the offense is going to be even more dangerous, and that should be motivation enough for the offseason acquisition.

But even that isn't as important as the final point.  

 

Dwight Howard is Better Rolling than Posting

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Why is it time for Howard to abandon the low post for the pick-and-roll? Simply because he's waaaaaay better in the latter situation. 

Let me hit you over the head with a few graphs.

First, let's look at the points per possession Howard scored in each situation during his time with the Lakers.

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

It's not even close.

He was the No. 9 roll man among all qualified players, and his post-up prowess (or lack thereof) left him ranked 121st. That would lead you to believe that Howard should play much more in PnR situations, yet he never did that.

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

That pie chart is ludicrous. While it's natural for big men to spend more time posting up, the discrepancy is far too large for a player with that much more talent in the lesser-used situation. All the percentages point toward that as well.

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

Howard shot a much higher percentage, drew fouls more often, scored points on a higher percentage of his opportunities and turned the ball over much less frequently. And yet, he doesn't want to play more in the post? 

So far, we've heard completely different stories about Howard's desires. 

Nash, as reported by ESPN's Dave McMenamin, claimed that Howard had no interest in running PnR plays while he was with the Lakers: 

However, Nash said that X's and O's played just as big a part with Howard as health did.

"He didn't seem like he really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense, maybe because he had run one in Orlando for so long and he wanted to get in the post more," Nash said.

The 17-year veteran was skeptical that Houston would provide a drastically different offense for Howard to thrive in.

"We'll see," Nash said. "Houston runs a pick-and-roll offense and they are littered with shooting and can maybe space the floor more for him so he can have more opportunities inside with space."

The opposite view has already been taken by Jeremy Lin, Howard's new point guard. The Associated Press via NBA.com has the scoop on Lin's statement: 

We're not yet in Houston and haven't trained together so I don't know yet. 

But he really likes to play pick-and-roll and I really like to play pick-and-roll, so I hope we can work really well together and really happily learn how to play with each other.

Houston has to hope that Lin is correct. 

Is Houston an elite team if Howard accepts the PnR game?

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Throughout the last few years, the big man has failed to show any sort of demonstrable improvement in post-up situations. There was a slight uptick in performance right after he worked with Olajuwon for the first time, but he couldn't build upon that improvement. Instead, he started declining. 

Maybe there will be another jump in post performance after another summer of training with The Dream. Maybe there won't. 

Either way, Howard has to be less dependent on his work with his back to the basket. As long as he focuses on effectively running pick-and-rolls with Lin, Harden and Patrick Beverley, the Houston offense will be in great shape. 

Championship shape, even. 

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