One of the biggest questions for the Houston Rockets heading into this season is how they'll manage the Dwight Howard-Omer Asik combination. Both players are centers with a skill set that makes them much easier to integrate at the defensive end of the floor. They each have the capability to make big contributions on offense, but limited range makes playing them together a challenge.
Despite that, the Rockets seem committed to making the pairing work.
Since the Rockets signed Howard, they've publicly committed to keeping Asik and finding a way to use them together. Asik just returned from injury, and in the Rockets' three preseason games to wrap up the action we had a chance to see them on the floor together for the first time, seeing their overlapping strengths and weaknesses in action.
In those three preseason games they played together for just under 40 minutes.
Over that time the Rockets were phenomenal defensively, holding their opponents to an average of just 75.9 points per 100 possessions. But as well as things went at that end of the floor, they were a disaster at the other end, scoring just 82.3 points per 100 possessions with Howard and Asik in together.
This picture, from the very first offensive possession with Howard and Asik both on the floor, does a pretty good job of summing up the challenges the Rockets face in trying to score with both players on the court.
Howard is posting up on the left block, and the Rockets' perimeter players are well spaced around the three-point line.
But Asik's defender, Dirk Nowitzki in this case, is playing about ten feet off, shadowing Howard. This scenario, with a second big defender being available to double-team, should be a constant for Howard whenever he's working in the post alongside Asik.
In addition to making things more difficult for Howard, it makes things more complicated for the rest of his teammates as well.
Cuts to the basket by Jeremy Lin or Chandler Parsons will be easily stymied by Dirk, and double-teaming Howard doesn't require leaving any perimeter shooters open. Also, this example is only looking at when Howard is working on the low block. Even when he doesn't have the ball both his defender and Asik's defender will be much more available to rotate down and cut off penetration, which was the lifeblood of the Rockets' offense last season.
In this example many of those elements come together, all in one possession.
Howard makes a move from the left block and finds himself spinning right into Asik's man, Bernard James. The ball gets kicked back out, and Lin is forced to attack with the shot clock winding down. He loses Monta Ellis with a nice spin move but finds himself trying to finish over three Mavericks.
Here, Parsons is able to attack a disorganized Spurs defense off an offensive rebound but is forced to deal with both Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter at the rim.
But even with these clear challenges, there are some things the Rockets can do to create a reasonably effective offense with their dual-center lineups.
The first is to push the ball in transition.
This will be heavily dependent on Howard's health and fitness level, but if they can attack before the defense is set, with both opposing bigs in position defensively, they'll have a much easier time creating the types of shots they are looking for.
In the 40 minutes Asik and Howard played together in the preseason the Rockets played at a pace of 96.7 possessions per 48 minutes. That's a relatively uptempo number and would have ranked sixth in the entire league last season.
But it's considerably slower than what the Rockets themselves did last season, averaging 98.6 possessions per game, the fastest pace in the league. It is worth pointing out that the Rockets were very good on the offensive glass with both Asik and Howard in the game which can lower the counted number of possessions, giving the illusion of a slower pace.
The other thing the Rockets can really focus on is moving both Asik and Howard on offense, staying away from possessions where either player is pounding the ball in the post or standing around and allowing the defense to set up.
In this example the Rockets set up for a high pick-and-roll with Lin and Howard.
As that unfolds, Asik is running the baseline towards the strong-side corner. As Lin turns the corner, Bernard James has to drop down to cut him off, leaving Howard free to roll to the basket undefended. Because Asik has dragged Nowitkzi along the baseline he's now in the position to be a scoring threat himself.
If Nowitzki rotates onto Howard, Lin would simply drop the ball off to Asik.
Because James Harden and Chandler Parsons are spaced perfectly on that side of the three-point line, their defenders can't rotate down without giving up a wide-open look. Everyone stays put, and Howard gets the dunk.
Here the Rockets run the exact same set, but with Harden handling the ball. Matt Bonner, defending Asik, is forced into the same difficult decision between leaving Howard or Asik free at the rim.
In this example the Rockets use some of the same elements.
Parsons pushes the ball up to the wing and sets up to run a side pick-and-roll with Howard. Parsons ends up dribbling baseline, away from the screen, trying to drag Howard's defender and create space at the rim for Dwight. This pulls in Asik's defender, and Asik is able to sneak in behind his man for a bounce pass and a dunk.
While there is potential for movement and early offense to offset some of the spacing problems, any effective offensive attack the Rockets can assemble with Asik and Howard together will probably need to feature a lot of this:
The good news for the Rockets is that they probably won't need a world-beating offense when Howard and Asik are on the floor—simply because it will be so difficult for their opponents to score.
Both players are strong, physical, mobile and fantastic defenders at the rim.
Playing both together gives the Rockets the defensive weapons to deal with strong interior scorers and mobile perimeter defensive attacks, even on the same possession. In this video, from Matt Moore at CBSSports.com, we get to see Asik hold his ground against Zach Randolph while Howard moves on the back line to send back the shot.
In this example we get to see the mobility of both players on full display.
Tony Parker is running along the baseline, picking up three screens as the Spurs try to create an opening for him to curl free at the elbow. As he comes off the last screen, Asik drifts far off his man, Splitter, to make sure there isn't a driving lane to the basket open for Parker.
Parker drops the ball off to Splitter, but Asik is able to recover in time to challenge the shot. Howard hangs back long enough to make sure Splitter has no other option than shooting the basketball, before also dropping down to meet him at the rim.
These two videos are perfect illustrations of why the tandem of Howard and Asik will make the Rockets so incredibly difficult to score against. The combination of size and speed allows them to deal with almost any look an opponent could throw at them.
Setting aside what to expect from this combination offensively and defensively, the biggest preseason lesson we may have learned about how they'll be used was from the way their minutes were distributed.
In all three games they played together for a six- to seven-minute stretch at the beginning of the game. In their first two games they played another stretch of roughly the same length to begin the third quarter. In their final preseason game, against the Spurs, they played another four minutes together toward the end of the second quarter, before resting the entire second half.
Clearly the Rockets understand the trade-off between offensive challenges and defensive domination that the pairing presents and seem ready to use the combination in limited minutes and certain situations.
Both players should see upwards of 30 minutes a game, but they will probably overlap for only 12-14 of those minutes. Whatever benefits and shortcomings they present, it looks like that will be a smaller piece of the Rockets overall framework this year.
Note: Statistics cited from last season come courtesy of NBA.com. Statistics cited from this preseason were calculated manually by the author from NBA.com play-by-play logs.