Dwight Howard needs to make more free throws. Until he does, coach Kevin McHale’s best strategy in tight games is to sub D12 in and out, to keep his prodigious rim protector around, while also avoiding an endless reign of brick-bloodbaths. Opponents can easily foul Howard, to force this. It's called “Hack-a-Dwight.” This strategy would have derailed a lot of important games for the Lakers last year, but they didn’t play in many.
Just how glaring of a hole is Dwight’s free-throw shooting? With L.A., he was third in the league in free throws taken, while coming in 426th in free-throw percentage. He missed more free throws in 2012-13 than Steve Nash has missed in his entire career.
Dwight has averaged 58 percent from the mark for his career, but fell well below that over his last few seasons. He’ll need to at least get closer to his average if the Rockets want to keep him on the floor down the stretch of must-win contests.
If Howard could improve his percentage dramatically, Houston would be sitting pretty. But the more likely outcome—and the one they should be lucky to accept—is that he merely takes enough pride in the practice to make Hack-a-Dwight teams pay for their game theory. Shaq's career free throw percentage (53) is actually lower than Howard's, to date. But time and again he made two in a row in the clutch, when opposing teams thought they’d exploited the Lakers’ greatest weakness. Dwight would be wise to ignore most of Shaq’s ego games, but in this respect, he should aspire to emulate O’Neal.
Like Shaq, Howard will probably never be a good free throw shooter. Most seven-footers aren’t, and the shortcoming a flaw that’s part of the price the Rockets will pay, in receiving all of the benefits of his play. 58 percent is probably as good as it can get (when he shot 67 percent in his rookie season, it was largely because he took only 277 free throws: by far a career low). But if the Rockets go deep in the Western Conference, it will be the smaller things that decide their fate. And every extra free throw made is an inch in the right direction.
Playing with Another Center
Howard will need to play well with James Harden. But it will actually be more important—and interesting— to see how he works with his new frontcourt partner, Omer Asik. Asik was terrific last year, but the Turkish center balked when Howard was signed and suggested he wanted out.
This isn’t the first time Howard’s played with another center: last year, of course, there was Pau Gasol. Both were victims of Mike D’Antoni’s lack of direction, but either could have lightened the teams’ many problems, by accepting a less traditional role, outside of the post.
Houston GM Daryl Morey likes to think outside the box, and seems eager to make this new combination work; he’s said he’s not trading Asik.
The experiment is most likely to work if Howard is the man willing to work from the elbow, and not pout about a lack of post-ups, as he did in L.A.
Why should Howard be the one to adjust? Because Asik’s offensive value is almost exclusively on the glass (he finished 7th in the league offensive rebounds per game, last season), and as a finisher. He’s almost useless otherwise. Just take a look at his shot chart from last season:
Asik will need to be positioned closer to the hoop, to resemble a valuable two-way player. If he clears out to make room for Howard in the deep post, it will be all too easy for Asik’s defender to leave him alone, and double up on Howard. Not good.
Plus, Howard’s always been a scarier player as an over-sized slasher than as a butt-to-the-basket guy. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently noted, Dwight’s not exactly a craftsman in the post. This is not to say he’s terrible: he just isn’t great, and Houston would be better off getting him in situations where his crazy natural athleticism takes over—not his faint back-down chops.
Daryl Morey revealed in a Reddit AMA session that he was thinking along these lines. He said that Coach McHale would “experiment” with Howard at power forward, and Asik at center.
If both players acclimate to the arrangement, they could be a fearsome combination. But if they don’t, and spacing issues push Asik to the a super-sub role, there could be personality and chemistry issues similar to those Howard saw in L.A.
And how will Howard mesh with Harden, one of more popular players in the league? Basketball-wise, they’re a dream come true: an elite ball-heavy scorer, excellent at creating space, has gained one of the league’s best at-the-rim finishers.
But “basketball-wise” have never been the words to disqualify Howard. His problems have always been more psychological than physical. Many wonder if Howard’s lust for the limelight has him “fearing the beard.” He might retreat into his shell, as he did in L.A., when Harden inevitably takes games over for the Rockets, and continues to be a media darling. Both players enjoy their publicity, and that’s fine, but Howard’s shown an aversion toward sharing the attention.
Howard didn’t co-habit the spotlight with Kobe too well—but, in fairness, Kobe’s never shared it well with anyone. Harden seems like a more laid-back type, and much less of a glory-hog than Bryant. So there’s cause for hope.
But the new superstar pairing is still a huge question mark, because of Howard's historically troubled temperament.
In fact, among the cavalcade of chemistry and roster doubts facing these new Rockets, none loom larger than how D12’s comfort level, his confidence, his feelings of inclusion—his very mood—will alter their prospects for contention. It may seem ridiculous, but managing this superstar's psyche just so could be the most important task facing Houston, this year. It could be the difference between an early playoff exit and true title hopes.
*All statistics from Basketball-Reference.