How Houston Rockets Adjust Offense to Make Dwight Howard-Omer Asik Tandem Work
This isn't going to work.
What the Houston Rockets did this offseason was commendable, but it wasn't complicated. They "pried" Dwight Howard away from a Los Angeles Lakers team he didn't want to play for. Their pursuit of him was quick, painless for everyone outside Los Angeles and not really a pursuit at all. It made stealing candy from a baby seem like Mission: Impossible.
Superman was Houston's for the taking. And it took him. The Rockets placed him alongside James Harden, let social media run its course, and came out the other side looking like title-contending Einsteins.
Though the heart of Houston's roster—Howard and Harden—calls for players who can space the floor and drill threes, the Rockets seem inclined to tinker with common logic.
As to why they're so hell-bent on doing so, I don't know. Maybe they're content with not winning championships.
Or maybe they actually believe this can work.
Head coach Kevin McHale does. He's optimistic that the two can play together, according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen:
I think we're going to play basically the same style. We have to get better defensively, and with Dwight we have to have more of an emphasis on trying to get the ball in the post. Through Dwight running and Dwight doing different things, I think we can do that without really having to change our identity. We still want to get the ball up and down the floor. We still want to be aggressive and run and attack offensively. I think we have two of the top rim protectors in Dwight and Omer, so we have to use those guys. I'd like to use them together. It gives us a chance to have a defensive presence and run off our defense a little more. Our style will change a little bit because our personnel changes, but it won't change dramatically. At least I hope it doesn't.
McHale remains upbeat about Houston's current setup, but he also preached caution and controlled change. Asik requested a trade for a reason, just like McHale isn't crowning the Rockets champs for a reason. Houston's assembly isn't guaranteed to work without some old-fashioned give and take, and a pinch of never-outdated luck.
Yet while the rest of world sees the perils of this experiment, Howard doesn't. He doesn't see the need to worry, nor does he seem to have any reservations at all.
"There is no need to adjust," he told reporters during a recent visit to Taiwan. "I have been playing basketball for my whole life. I started it up playing a point guard."
That's great, Dwight. It really is. But now you're a 6'11" center who can't score outside of nine feet. And Asik is a 7-footer with the same limitations. Adjustments will have to be made, especially if the Rockets wish to maintain their fast-paced style.
Consider a Starting Point Guard Change
I've got nothing against Jeremy Lin. He's quick-footed, he can split defenders away from weak-side corners, and he makes it cool to drive Volvos (but not really).
I'm also not one to throw a tuxedo on a rooster and call him Justin Timberlake; therefore, I can't pretend Lin is something he's not—a shooter.
Lin connected on just 33.9 percent of his threes last season and only 36.3 percent outside of nine feet overall, according to Hoopdata.com. And per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he hit just 38.7 percent of his spot-up attempts.
His limitations are only workable within lineups consisting of myriad shooters—so, everything Houston's starting five isn't right now.
Howard and Asik won't be hoisting up deep balls next season (God willing). Harden can hit threes (36.8 percent in 2012-13), but he's a rim-attacker first and foremost. And Chandler Parsons is Chandler Parsons. He's going to knock down threes (38.5 percent last year).
If we're being honest, Lin doesn't fit into that equation. Parsons can't be the only outside sniper. Asik and Howard aren't gunners, and Harden needs to work from the inside out. Just like Lin.
Fielding a starting lineup where four of the five bodies prefer to score from the same space isn't conducive to winning. The Rockets are voluntarily clogging the paint whenever Howard and Asik are playing side-by-side; they can't afford to handicap themselves any further by complementing them with two on-ball scorers, one of whom has limited range.
Both Aaron Brooks (37.3 percent from three) and Patrick Beverley (37.5 percent) are better options as floor-spacing, off-ball guards, Beverley especially—he put in 41.8 percent of his spot-up bombs last year, clobbering Lin's 34.6.
McHale is also free to take it one step further. Harden's basically a shoot-first point guard to begin with. His 5.8 assists per game last season were right in line with Lin's 6.1. Leaving him to run the offense allows Houston to throw in a floor-spacer like Francisco Garcia or Reggie Williams instead of a point guard.
Oversized lineups, however, aren't ideal. Asik or Howard will already be defending power forwards; Harden shouldn't be forced to defend point guards exclusively.
In the interest of spreading defenses as thin as possible, though, change at the 1 should still be considered. Running with a floor general capable of playing off the ball and draining threes ensures Houston will salvage whatever spacing is available after deliberately creating a low-post logjam.
Think Like a Turtle...
Let us revisit a snippet from McHale's previous statement.
"We still want to get the ball up and down the floor," he opined. "We still want to be aggressive and run and attack offensively."
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that's not going to happen.
That doesn't mean the Rockets must cease running altogether. Asik and Howard can get up and down the floor quickly for players their size. Houston must adhere to a more structured blueprint, that's all.
When a defensive rebound is grabbed, the recipient should have his head up looking to push the ball. If the numbers advantage isn't there, slow it down instead of seeking abrupt pull-ups. Think (less than) seven-seconds-or-less meets 10-seconds-or-more. Run like Rudolph if you're really going to run; move like Grandpa if you're not.
Because the Rockets have to run the ball through the post and become more familiar with half-court sets. There's no point in trying out twin towers if they don't.
Almost 97 percent of Howard's made baskets came inside of nine feet last season, while nearly 95 percent of Asik's came within the same range. And 45.2 percent of all Howard's offensive possessions came in the form of post-ups.
Scoring at or around the rim is all these two know. They can't be part of a run-and-gun system together. One of them? Sure. Both? Nope. Not an effective one, anyway. Defenses already know neither will be jacking up jumpers in rhythm, freeing them up to zero in on the Rockets' actual shooters.
Thus, I repeat: Slow it down, Houston. Run the ball through the post more than 4.2 percent of the time. The success of this jagged-edged puzzle depends on it.
...With the Urgency of the Hare
What the Rockets don't want to do is completely butcher their offensive identity. McHale made it a point to say they must remain the same to a certain extent.
To do that, Houston can't become a team of ball-stoppers. The rock must continue to move. Post-ups need to be accepted as a necessity, not the only way to score. Ball movement keeps defenses honest and makes offenses tougher to guard in general.
Maintaining an air of unselfishness with two bigs—neither of whom are known for their passing—will be difficult. But it's not impossible.
Picture a morphed version of a play like this, only it will star Harden instead of Kobe Bryant and Asik instead of Pau Gasol. Both Kobe and Gasol are positioned around the three-point line while Howard remains relatively idle in the corner:
Now, because Asik and Howard aren't skilled marksmen, defenses likely won't come out as far to guard the "Gasol" of this play. There should still, however, be enough room to do what comes next.
Gasol seizes the opportunity to slash toward the basket and is hit with the pass from Kobe:
The key here is to never stop running; the ball must be caught in stride. Asik and Howard cannot put the rock on the floor the way Gasol can, so it's important to keep moving like he does here:
Removing the need to dribble prevents turnovers. The less Howard and Asik are forced to expose the basketball, the better.
Barreling towards the rim without putting the ball on the floor also compels defenses to converge. Dribbling takes time; it invokes a pause. Constant movement of the feet sparks urgency.
Two defenders have already committed to Gasol above. If he has a step on them, an easy look at the rim awaits. Otherwise, he has a trailing Howard coming, whom he can hit with a pass:
This is one way the Rockets can create extra room. Bringing Asik and Howard out from the paint far enough unclogs their pipeline. Their defenders won't be on them like white on rice or tattoos on Chris Andersen, but it will open things up, like what we saw here.
The end result of this particular play isn't even what's most important. Again, it's that space. It incited ball movement, but it also left lanes open for Kobe—in Houston's case, Harden—to drive if he the mood struck.
Another lens to look at this through can be found in Memphis, with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Or in 2012, when the Lakers ran with Bynum and Gasol. The emphasis there is on high-low, where only one big is inside the paint.
Eye candy, Part I:
Similar high-low sets would be difficult for the Rockets to duplicate. Neither Howard nor Asik has the range of the Gasols. That's why the previous example works better. Los Angeles never figured out how to use both Gasol and Howard, but that play opens up all kinds of doors.
But that doesn't discredit the value of playing high and low. Remember, it's about creating space.
Balancing that dribble penetration with the need to simultaneously involve Howard and Asik in the same play is crucial. And with plays like these, it becomes possible.
The Road Ahead
Right now, this isn't going to work.
Which change will help Dwight Howard and Omer Asik coexist the most?
Houston can't use Howard and Asik as part of a strictly uptempo offense. Trying to hang onto last year's identity will have the opposite effect. Disaster will strike, and the Rockets will cease to be the point-totaling machine they were last year.
They can't pretend to be something they're clearly not.
Things need to slow down, space-creating plays must be employed and those around them must know their way about the three-point line.
Only then, when the Rockets have adjusted their offense to meet the needs of a dual-center lineup, can this work.
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