What's Keeping Dwight Howard from Being the Next Great Rockets Big Man?

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What's Keeping Dwight Howard from Being the Next Great Rockets Big Man?
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Zombies, once out of fashion, apparently are back as the most terrorizing monster the entertainment world can imagine. This comes after a stretch of, oh, 30 years or so of rotting away in obscurity. It’s a remarkable comeback, considering all the advances in cinematics and digitalization.   

Dwight Howard, in NBA terms, is trying to become a zombie. A.k.a., a big man who plays with his back to the basket. He, too, must overcome a slate of daunting developments to make that a reality.

"I just want them to trust me," he says of his Houston Rockets teammates. "Having an inside-outside attack puts so much pressure on the other team. It’s not about me scoring. It just makes the game easier for everybody if they have to double me in the post."

They’re going to have to take that on faith right now. Entering the weekend, the Rockets had posted up Howard 172 times and utilized him in a pick-and-roll 30 times. He made 38 percent of his post-up shots and 73 percent of his shots rolling to the basket. He turned the ball over 23 percent of the time posting up but only 7 percent of the time on P&Rs. Points per possession in the post: .634. PPP in the P&R: 1.267.

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NBA.com

"They’re doing it, though," Howard said. "It’s going to get better."

Rockets coach—and former Celtics' low-post savant—Kevin McHale is certainly giving him the chance to prove it, considering the 6:1 ratio between post-ups and P&Rs despite the relative effectiveness. Then again, the Rockets did have the franchise’s post-presence predecessors—Yao Ming, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson and Moses Malone—in attendance at Howard's introductory press conference.

Working with Olajuwon to improve his post moves apparently inspired an epiphany for both men about how rule changes have made operating around the rim infinitely harder for a big man. The most obvious is the abolishment of illegal defense, which forced a second defender either to stay away or commit fully to a double-team; the idea of floating in between to create confusion wasn't allowed. Since the 2001-02 season, teams have been allowed to play a form of zone defense, which as college basketball has long demonstrated, can frustrate the best of post-up players.

"Stinks," said Shaquille O’Neal then of the rule change.

Howard suggested that the first year of the new rules being Olajuwon's last after 18 seasons wasn't completely coincidental.

"A lot of the moves he made you couldn’t make today, because you have a lot more people in the post," Howard said. "He has advised me to run the floor and try to get shots that way, and when I have to work out of the post to jump-hook 'em to death. But we like to work from opposite blocks, so it’s a little different that way, too."

Another difference: A good number of today’s NBA referees never have had to officiate a quintessential post-up player of Howard's size and strength. Nearly half of today’s 62 full-time officials arrived after Olajuwon left. More than a dozen referees started after the 2008-09 season, Yao Ming's last full season and the last time Shaq was an All-Star.

It's unlikely anyone will ever confuse Olajuwon’s ballet-dancer balance and silky pivot moves in either direction with Howard's brute-force shimmies to get under the rim, but there’s also little chance Shaq's manner of backing a defender down would be tolerated today. The fact is, referees deciding the line between reasonable and undue force by a big man backing his way to the basket have long tilted toward undue more than, say, players driving the lane. The proof is in the list of players who have led the league in offensive fouls since 1996-97; all of them are, or were, predominantly post players:

Players with the most offensive fouls per season
Dwight Howard 56.7
Carmelo Anthony 48.0
Shawn Kemp 43.3
Shaquille O'Neal 40.0
Karl Malone 38.5

Rockets

Players with the most seasons of 50+ Offensive Fouls since 1996-97
Carmelo Anthony 7
Shaquille O'Neal 6
Dwight Howard 5
Amare Stoudemire 5

Rockets

So the next time someone gripes about the dearth of back-to-the-basket big men in the NBA, don’t immediately blame the general preference, no matter how tall a player might be, for facing up and handling the ball and shooting jumpers that is fostered at the AAU level. The NBA isn’t exactly encouraging that style of play, either.

Granted, Howard as an advocate for anything is a bit of a hard sell at the moment, with all that has gone on with him the last few years. But, hey, nobody really likes zombies, either, and they’ve made a staggering comeback.

Howard has to hope the cycle for him and the post-up game is jjjjjjust a tad quicker.  

 

And-Ones

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Dealing Rudy Gay is the surest sign that Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri isn't interested in a quick splash at the expense of his long-term plans. With the Eastern Conference as weak as it is, Ujiri easily could've kept his roster intact and expected to make the playoffs. Keeping Gay, however, would've meant planning for the future without knowing for sure if his most expensive player intended to exercise his option for another season to the tune of $19 million. Having his books straight and his vision unfettered clearly is more important than the instant gratification of being one of the best eight teams among a moribund lot.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

• Steve Novak stepped into a time machine simply by changing franchises. Novak played for the Knicks last season, where 11 of the 19 players who made an appearance were older than him. Now 30, he started this season as the Raptors' oldest player, although he relinquishes that title with the deal sending Gay to Sacramento; Chuck Hayes, 30, and John Salmons, 33, are among the players acquired by the Raptors. "It was weird, for sure," Novak said of the sudden shift from young buck to elder statesman. Novak will appreciate the presence of Hayes because it will mean teammate Jonas Valanciunas, a 21-year-old Lithuanian with a very physical style, will have someone else to knock around in practice. "He's got a mean streak," Novak said. "I've had to tell him, 'Stop bumping into me. No, really.' He likes contact." Valanciunas just smiled. "I'm just playing around with him," he said.

 

Stat Corner

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

• Conventional thinking is that the corner three is the easiest shot behind the arc because it's only 22 feet (vs. 23'9") and all the action is in front of you. The Hawks' Cartier Martin is proof that doesn't apply to everyone. Martin is tied for the league lead in making threes from the top of the arc (60 percent) with teammate Kyle Korver, but he has the third-lowest percentage (25 percent) shooting from the corner.

• Whether it's age or absence of quality point-guard play, the Knicks are last in fast-break points per game (8.3) and percentage of their points scored off fast breaks (8.8 percent), which suggests they're not missing breakaways—they're just not trying to get them.

• Nobody is exploiting corner three-pointers more efficiently than the Pacers’ Paul George, who is dropping them at a 61.8 percent clip; only Detroit’s Andre Drummond is shooting higher (63.5%) than that overall.

• How much has LeBron James transformed his game in the last few years? He currently leads the league in shooting from the paint (73.6 percent) and number of shots made there (134).

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

Note: Rockets stats via team sources; Stat Corner stats via Bloomberg Sports.

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