Not everything has to be bigger in Texas.
Dwight Howard joined the Houston Rockets to win championships and, apparently, play out of position. Steadfast refusals to trade fellow center Omer Asik will force Howard to play power forward for stretches at a time, and while Superman isn't worried, legitimate concerns abound.
For the Rockets to make this pairing work, they'll have to gut their entire space-and-pace offense. Inordinate amounts of fast-break opportunities—gone. Bouquets of three-point attempts—trashed along with their transition offense.
Concepts that gave them the sixth-most efficient offense in the league last year and helped them score 106 points a game (second) would have to be abandoned completely. All of them.
Abdicating their throne as the NBA's leading runners-and-gunners is something the Rockets ultimately won't do, though. And why?
Because it's never going to be worth it.
Tinkering with their previous offensive setup could work. Dabbling in half-court-oriented schemes may make an unconventional pairing solvent. Dilly-dallying with bigger ball might even prove productive. But doing so will never make the Rockets as good as they can be with Howard at center.
No matter how hard they try, resistance will be futile. They'll continue to find that bigger things await them in a much smaller package.
Playing Howard and Asik together clogs lanes that used to be open, creating self-imposed obstacles for rim-attackers like Jeremy Lin and James Harden.
Planning around this isn't going to be easy. It essentially eliminates Houston's ability to pair two ball-dominators side-by-side. Lin's starting job is already in jeopardy because his playing style clashes with Harden's.
With just one traditional big in the game, that's easier to overcome. With two, forget about it.
Bringing him off the bench only does so much, too. You can't stagger his minutes with Harden's and the Asik-Howard pairing completely. There are going to be times when he'll be on the floor next to those three, limiting Houston's offensive options even further.
Keeping Howard at center leaves the Rockets free to experiment. They can shift Chandler Parsons to the 4 as a stretch forward, shift Harden to the 3 and run wild in the backcourt. Patrick Beverley and Lin can play together at the 1 and 2, as they did when Howard was at the 5 against the Dallas Mavericks, writes the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen:
But the Rockets did their real damage when Howard was in the middle and they had him surrounded with shooters.
That brought some lineup combinations at least as interesting as the Howard/Asik pairing. Chandler Parsons matched up with Nowitzki in his first playing time of the preseason at power forward. Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley again played long stretches together. Omri Casspi continued to play power forward, eventually taking a flagrant-2 foul smack in the face that got Nowitzki tossed from the game.
Omri Casspi at the 4? Sign me up. Running with Howard at the 5 also opens up minutes for Donatas Motiejunas or Terrence Jones, both are whom are power forwards with a shooting guard's touch.
Futzing around of any kind won't be as palatable with Howard at power forward. Options at the remaining three positions will be restricted to Harden and a wonted point guard and small forward.
Where's the versatility in that?
Three-Point Frenzies for the Win
Leaving Howard at his natural position allows the Rockets to surround him with shooters. And for those who didn't watch the Rockets last season, they liked to shoot.
When Howard is at power forward and Asik at center, the Rockets won't be hoisting up as many deep balls as they like. Neither Asik nor Howard is capable of scoring outside of nine feet. Or even close to capable.
Last year, according to Hoopdata.com, nearly 95 percent of Asik's baskets came inside of nine feet. Almost 97 percent of Howard's scores came within the same range. The league average for power forwards, by the way, was 29.3 percent; Howard doesn't exactly fit that bill.
Three-point shooting has become a fixture of contending offenses. We all know the value of defense—no team ranked outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency has won a title since 2000-01 (Los Angeles Lakers)—but floor spacing has, at the very least, rivaled its importance.
In six of the last seven seasons, at least one of the two teams that made it to the NBA Finals have finished in the top 10 of treys attempted per game. The Orlando Magic team Howard led to the finals in 2009 ranked second in the category.
Jacking up threes isn't a recipe for championships on its own. Ask the Knicks or the Rockets themselves. But Houston has complied with the growing importance of defense by signing Howard—Houston ranked 16th in defensive efficiency last season—and shouldn't permit that to come at the expense of its distance shooting.
For what it's worth, Howard's spikes in scoring have predominantly come when his teams shoot more threes. Here's a look at how his points-per-game totals compared to his team's three-point attempts:
Generally, the more three-pointers Howard's squads have fired, the higher his scoring average has been. At the very least, we see that some of his lowest-producing seasons came when his team wasn't shooting as many threes.
Employing smaller lineups with Howard stationed at the 5 allowed the Rockets to drain 13-of-28 from behind the arc in their most recent bout against the Mavericks. In turn, that allowed them to overcome 23 turnovers and win the game.
"That's also a more comfortable, faster, more exciting style of play, so it looks better," Parsons said of the smaller lineups, via Feigen.
"Comfortable" is the operative word here. Playing with one center is what the Rockets are more familiar with, and playing at center is where Howard has made a name for himself. Butchering what could be a lethal combination in favor of a slower style and bigger lineup isn't going to make the Rockets better.
All it's going to do is make us to ask, "What if?"
Defensive Matchups from Hell
"But it's good to be able to go with Dwight and Omer, especially against bigger teams," Parsons explained, per Feigen.
Great. Grand. Wonderful. But how many teams can be classified as big?
Looking around the league, I'd say at least two-thirds of teams will play power forwards who can either be classified as stretch 4s or can play inside and out. Playing Asik and Howard together has its advantages against, say, the Memphis Grizzlies, but teams like them are in the minority. Not to mention both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol can get their mid-range game on if they're feeling chirpy.
At power forward, Howard will be pitted against more versatile scorers, players who can put the ball on the floor and nail shots from beyond the rainbow. They'll draw him out of his comfort zone.
It's already started to happen, most notably when he was forced to guard Dirk Nowitzki.
"I thought I did pretty good tonight with showing on the pick-and-rolls with Dirk," Howard admitted, per Feigen. "There were a couple times in the first quarter I wasn't used to getting out there, but then I did a better job. It's good to mess up. You're not going to be perfect out there."
Perfection isn't possible, but Howard's one of the most dominant defenders in the game. Take him out of his comfort zone, from where he's most effective, and you're turning a strength into a weakness.
Look at where Howard is as he prepares to defend the pick-and-roll here:
Superman is used to safeguarding the roll man in these situations—who's almost never a three-point shooter—defending against a ball-handler's penetration. Plain and sample: He's usually covering the middle, dropping back low to protect the rim.
Very rarely is he asked to defend the handler one-on-one or step out beyond the arc to contest a three off a pick-and-pop. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Howard went one-on-one with the pick-and-roll ball-handler just once all last season. Just once. That's it. At power forward, against a guy like Dirk, that could happen on the regular.
Or he could be forced to guard against the three, well beyond his usual range and also where opponents converted 41.2 percent of their shots last season.
More than once, this is exactly what happened against the Mavericks, per Feigen:
"It was the first game," Howard said of the Supersized experiment after totaling 15 points, 17 rebounds and three steals. "I thought it was OK. There's some things we have to work on. Being able to talk to each other and rotate is something we have to adjust to. It's the first game. It's a good test for us. We'll be better."
On other possessions, Howard failed to step out on screens, allowing Jose Calderon to take midrange target practice. Another pick-and-pop ended with Howard's sinking into the lane and Nowitzki left alone to launch a 3.
Maybe Howard can nail down his rotations. Maybe he can resist the urge to sag into the middle off pick-and-rolls. Maybe he can get better at defending opposing power forwards.
Regardless of how good he gets, though, he'll never be at "home." Never be as good or effective as he is at center.
Old Habits Won't Die...and Shouldn't
The Rockets should be allowed to bomb away. They should be allowed to experiment with strange and faster lineups. And Howard should be allowed to play center, surrounded by shooters, where he's accustomed to defending just about every play in the book.
"There's a lot of unknowns," head coach Kevin McHale said of the bigger lineups, as quoted by Feigen.
Unknowns aren't characteristic of a title contender, not when certainty can be had by playing to a roster's strengths. The Rockets know this, too.
They know they're more comfortable playing smaller. They know Howard is more effective at center, fenced in by a quartet of shooters.
They know it's going to take patience and some drastic adjustments to make what they're doing now work.
"I played that way with bigs," McHale said. "I've seen it work before."
It might work in Houston, too. But even it does, it won't be the same. Not like it could be. Or like it should be.
Certainly not like the Rockets need it to be.
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