How Does Dwight Howard Create Space?

Whenever I’m babbling on to a friend about all the wonderful things Dwight Howard will do for Houston’s offense this season, there’s always that point in the conversation where disparaging statements about his unlovely style, and comparisons to other centers, are made.

“Marc Gasol is an inhumane passer! With range! He’s much better.”

“How can Howard be favored over Tim Duncan, who has murder-by-choice completeness?”

Those two are amazing defenders who also do so many fantastic, visible things with the ball in their hands, which, somehow, translates to “Howard is overrated!”

Houston’s franchise center isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but he affects offense in his own exceptional way; how he does it makes Duncan and Gasol seem less somatically devastating. I don’t mean to degrade those two in any way—they’re both obvious stars—but I’ve included them in this discussion as a way to show the different ways a big man can create efficient shots and make his teammates better.

Howard single-handedly makes it easier for Houston to score without ever touching the ball. Only undeniable All-World players consistently do that. It’s an insanely rare quality; here’s what it looks like.

See what I mean? Here’s the less demonstrative of two examples from Houston’s game against Dallas on Monday night, a contest Dirk Nowitzki wanted no part of.

A couple seconds after he sets a high screen in secondary transition for James Harden, Howard rockets (sorry, I’m not sorry) himself towards the rim and everyone in a blue jersey freezes.

Look at Vince Carter. Instead of worrying about Chandler Parsons, who slips behind him for an eventual alley-oop, he’s transfixed by Howard’s presence. Jose Calderon turns his back on Patrick Beverley (who at the time was making about 9000% of his threes); the two pick-and-roll defenders are busy with Harden; and Dirk stays planted in the strong side corner because basketball suicide right now equals giving Francisco Garcia two centimeters of space (and there’s no chance Dirk is putting his body in harms way during the preseason).

What makes this whole thing so incredible is that while Dallas ultimately allowed a dunk at the rim, you can’t say their individual defenders were completely out of place (except Carter, who was awful in all phases of the game that night).

If Howard were to catch the ball moving towards the basket, the play would be over before it started. Unless he steps on a sinkhole, it’s either a dunk or quick trip to the free-throw line. Here’s another example. This one’s a bit more dramatic, with everyone on Dallas looking like Beatrice.

After setting the screen on a side pick-and-roll with Jeremy Lin, Howard blasts off (OK, I’ll see myself out) towards the paint and Dallas completely surrounds him. Look how far Calderon and Nowitzki have dropped off their men in an effort to protect the rim and prevent a free two points.

It’s too far, though (or is it?). Lin reads the defense perfectly and flings the ball across the court to Beverley, who promptly nails a corner three, the one shot every offense craves and every defense wants to suffocate.

Keep in mind: 1) both these plays happened in a preseason game, and 2) Houston’s opponent in said preseason game was the Dallas Mavericks, promising contenders to be one of the NBA’s five worst defensive teams this year. (Want to score against the Mavericks? Force Monta Ellis and Vince Carter to defend a side pick-and-roll. Points for days.)

Still though, Howard’s done this exact same thing hundreds, if not thousands, of times since he was drafted, and it’s about time we all recognize how important it can be. These two snap shots capture how a great player can contort a defense with the mere threat of action. Howard can’t consistently score when he’s at least five feet from the basket, but he’s still one of the league’s best spacers. That’s ultimately all the Rockets need him to be.

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Total comments: 14
  • thejohnnygold says 5 months ago

    http://youtu.be/rtgogsWXN3U

    Nostalgic Dream Moves

    [media>http://youtu.be/rtgogsWXN3U[/media>

  • thejohnnygold says 5 months ago

    Good point, Sir Thursday. I agree that there will be nights that some good coaching will frustrate Howard. He does not strike me as one who is quick to adapt so it will be up to the coaches to show him film and train his brain to read and react as new schemes pop up.

    From what I can tell, they are coaching him in a similar manner that one learns to improvise with jazz. First, one must learn the standards (the basic moves) and then start stringing different moves together. Olajuwon was a master, often using 5-6 moves fluidly to get a clean shot off. Dwight may never reach that height, but if he can get to 3 fluid moves I think we'll be just fine. Currently, I'd say he is at 1: catch the ball and immediately swoop in. Next step: spin back the way you came after the swoop-in. After that: The up-and-under after the swoop-in/spin-back.

    Dwight working with Hakeem from the high-post...check out the mid-range...

    [media>http://youtu.be/N-RS22HbQaw[/media>

    http://youtu.be/N-RS22HbQaw

  • Sir Thursday says 5 months ago

    If I had to defend the Rockets, I would make Howard beat me. No double teams until the very end of the shot clock. I'd force him to work my starting center on the post, and I'd foul him liberally to take away dunks and layups. He might end up scoring 30-35 points, but it might take the Rockets out of their offense and lead guys like Harden, Lin, and Parsons to force some shots. It isn't a very good strategy, admittedly, since you are guaranteed to give up a certain number of relatively easy points--and risk losing your centers to foul trouble--but what is really the viable alternativ?. How do you defend the Rockets other than pray that they don't hit threes?

    From what I can tell, Dwight has been working on his post-game in a one-on-one setting (that's what I see happening in all the Hakeem videos, anyway). He seems to have the moves and the general positioning sense to be able to at least do reasonably well against single coverage. The reason why his post-ups haven't been working so well in a game setting is that teams are digging in on his post-ups or sending an extra man when he goes to the middle. He ends up getting stripped of the ball before he can complete his move and the results are disastrous.

    So while I don't think you need to double team all the time, you do need to have those extra guys on hand to make life difficult for Howard, especially since the Rockets haven't figured out the right system of movement to punish defenders for helping. If you can do it at the right balance that make Howard feel like he should persist with his post-ups, then you'll limit the effectiveness of the team. (I think teams might have shot themselves in the foot by doing it all the time - when even Howard realises it's not working he tends to switch to P&R where he's a lot more effective).

    ST

  • 2016Champions says 5 months ago

    I'm warming up to the idea of keeping Asik so Dwight doesn't have to stress about foul trouble, but I still don't like the thought of losing Asik to FA in 2 years. There's the hope Asik will re-sign but it's unlikely.

  • thejohnnygold says 5 months ago

    Thanks 2016.

    Noreastern, I agree that it is a very difficult thing to gauge given the huge number of variables, but I think that, in a vacuum, the principle holds water. I don't disagree that Howard's biggest contribution to winning is defense and on offense the space he creates (through drawing attention of so many defenders) is difficult to measure but easy to see.

    Getting to the bare bones of my point--I still feel strongly that leading off with a strong dose of Howard (preferably in the post, but on PnR's is ok too) can earn us a few more wins over the course of the season.

    To give it a more realistic understanding join me on this hypothetical:

    Say we didn't have Asik as back-up and instead had a run-of-the-mill back-up center (could be G. Smith, Camby (if healthy), or a guy like Nazr Mohammed, Ian Mahinmi...whoever). If Howard Picks up two quick fouls in the first few minutes of the game he sits until the second quarter. That means for 9-10 minutes of the first quarter our offense will generally suffer and our defense will really suffer--I think we can all agree on this. Second quarter starts and Howard picks up a third quick foul. He sits again and the same holds true. Meanwhile, the odds are the opposing center is less likely to pick up fouls and their guards are probably running lay-up drills against us. Not good. You guys get my point.

    Given our penchant for scoring at the rim it just makes sense to incorporate a strategy that weakens the opponent's defenses against it. Why jump a 4' hurdle when you can lower it to 3'? Further, if Dwight is wreaking havoc down low why not let him continue? If he can put another quick pair of fouls on their back-up then things start getting tricky.

    Four times in his career Dwight Howard has led the league in free throws attempted (I recognize a lot of that includes intentional fouls, but he is clearly earning some on his own as well)

    According to BasketballReference.com, Dwight shot .887 ft's per fg attempt (not fg's made...just attempts!) last year (his highest was .978 in '09-'10). (Harden's Ftr last season was .592 for scale) That means for every ten shots he takes he is shooting roughly 9 ft's and (hopefully this year) making 60% for an extra 5-6 points. To me, the scoring is nice, but not as nice as the adverse affect it has the opponent's ability to compete at full strength.

    Putting guys like Larry Sanders, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Drummond, Greg Monroe, Anthony Davis, Nikola Pekovic, and Javale McGee ( off the top of my head) on the bench early means Harden, Lin, Bev, and Parsons are going to be getting to the rim more and also getting fouled more. It's a double-edged sword for the Rockets. Not only do they get to reap the rewards of shooting free throws (a very high percentage shot) but they weaken their opponent's defense and offense over the course of the game. It may only result in 3-4 extra points, but how many extra games does this win us over a season? Over a playoff series?

    Much like the "ghost blocks" that Dwight creates on defense, I think there are invisible effects that can be generated in this way that will help sway many games in our favor. I agree that it calling fouls is inconsistent in the NBA, which is why I am merely proscribing an early game strategy to gauge it's effectiveness--if the refs aren't blowing whistles it's no big deal. We only cost ourselves 1 or 2 potential points and can move on from there with some pick n rolls.

    I agree that no current stats or simulations can realistically be generated, but I think if anyone can help Howard understand how to draw some extra contact it would be our very own Mr. James Harden. Collectively, Harden (10.2) and Howard (9.2) shot 19.7 Ft's per game last season. That's good stuff no matter how you look at it.

  • 2016Champions says 5 months ago

    Fantastic quality post JG. You motivate me to be a better poster with posts like that lol

  • NorEastern says 5 months ago An excellent analysis as always Johnny. I would base a statistical analysis on the parameters you laid out above. It may be tangential though. Howard's main value is of course defense. However his second most valuable contribution is space, as pointed out in the above article. Third is rebounds, forth is offense and fifth is fouls.

    Fouls vary widely, dependent of officiating crews match ups etc. I currently view fouls as asynchronous events. Since fouls vary wildly the sigma and standard deviation also vary wildly. And there is not enough data to draw any conclusions currently. Any statistical analysis would be further muddied by the mapping of Howard into the Rockets rotation domain. Maybe mid season you should ask this question again.
  • thejohnnygold says 5 months ago

    We all agree that Dwight and Harden pick n rolls, on paper, could be the greatest of all time. Mysynergysports.com has Dwight's pick n roll fg% at 80%--this is true. However, his scoring % on the pick n roll is 68.9% (a better measure of his efficiency and actual value). Meanwhile, his post up fg% is 44.5% but the scoring % is 41%. This is based solely on last year's stats in LA which I take with a grain of salt given his injury, their lack of team chemistry for most of the year, and D'Antoni's reluctance to utilize one of the game's better players.

    A statistic I like even better is Dwight's ability to draw fouls (which warrants giving him touches early and often). Dwight gets fouled nearly 16% of the time--period. On pick n rolls it jumps to 23%. Given the lack of quality defensive centers in the league and Dwight's ability to draw fouls it is an early gambit strategy in any game to give Dwight the ball in the post. Players sit in the first quarter after 2 fouls and then will sit the remainder of the 2nd quarter after their 3rd. That is standard operating procedure in the NBA. Once the starting center hits the bench, the floodgates will open for everybody to score. I know what you're thinking..."wait a minute...the pick n roll foul% was higher...why go to the post with Dwight?" Thanks for asking....here is why:

    The deceptive nature of the pick n roll foul% being higher is that Dwight does not receive the ball every time a pick n roll is run. (I understand the ball handler can get fouled too, but in this scenario it would probably be a guard fouling since Harden would likely dish to Howard if the center rotates to defend him). At a 15% rate it would take roughly 7 post up attempts to draw a single foul (obviously this is not how it usually goes as fouls often come in clusters--another reason to hit it early and often--we might get lucky as the refs attempt to establish order for the game) Still, for this exercise we will say it is a 1:7 ratio. At 23% it takes only 4 Howard pick n rolls, BUT it takes twice as many plays to get him the ball. This ratio is actually 1:8. Thus, as an overall strategy for winning it makes sense to give Dwight the ball in the post early and often in order to put the opposition on their heels by putting their center on the bench--which affects them on offense and defense.

    Another aspect is that, combined, the pick n roll results in a turnover 29.4% of the time when combining Harden and Howard's numbers from last year. On the flip side, Howard turns it over 18% of the time in the post. Hold on, we must adjust our numbers. This means that for every 5 touches in the post, Dwight doesn't get a shot off so his ratio goes from 1:7 to 1:8. Bad news for the pick n roll. Missing nearly 30% of their opportunities to score is bad news. This means the 1:8 ratio jumps to 1:10 (possibly 1:11) when drawing fouls against the opposing center.

    This doesn't seem like a big deal until you bring in opportunity costs. Those extra possessions used for the pick n roll will net some extra points, but they cost time--time we could have been playing against the other team's back-up center. Having the back-up on the court raises our overall fg% while, realistically, lowering theirs.

    So, Dwight's 8 post ups scoring at 41% equate to (2*(8 possessions - 1 turnover * .41))= 5.74 points

    8 pick n rolls scoring at 68.9% for Dwight and 45.2% for Harden (assuming 50/50 split) equate to a scoring % of 57%. (2*(8 possessions-2 turnovers * .57)= 6.84 points

    Pick n roll wins by +1.1 points per 8 possessions.

    I know more data would make this more accurate. We need to factor in foul shooting, and1's, and the actual ratios of how much Harden shoots vs. howard, etc. The bottom line is, I think these shooting percentages--while stark in contrast to one another--are not as clear cut as one might think at first glance. Further, given the other advantages one can gain--more fouls, and more time on the court against back-ups, PLUS at the end of the game players with 4-5 fouls will be wary of committing more fouls which opens up the defense even more--I think it is not such a poor decision to give Dwight some time in the post with the ball (this also gives our wings time to rest which will improve their efficiency on defense and when the offense moves through them).

    If any of our in-house mathematicians/statisticians would like to tackle this in a more accurate and cogent manner that would be great.

    The bottom line is this. I believe that fouling out the starting center is one of the largest factors in determining which team wins a basketball game (specifically, getting fouls early in the game forcing them to spend more time than usual on the bench). If the Rockets can use Dwight to achieve this early on I think it is an opportunity we have to attempt--even at the expense of 1.1 points per 8 possessions--it will pay off in the end game. I mean, what do we think Dwight's scoring% would be against back-up centers--post-up or pick n roll? My guess is even better :)

  • 2016Champions says 5 months ago

    If I had to defend the Rockets, I would make Howard beat me. No double teams until the very end of the shot clock. I'd force him to work my starting center on the post, and I'd foul him liberally to take away dunks and layups. He might end up scoring 30-35 points, but it might take the Rockets out of their offense and lead guys like Harden, Lin, and Parsons to force some shots. It isn't a very good strategy, admittedly, since you are guaranteed to give up a certain number of relatively easy points--and risk losing your centers to foul trouble--but what is really the viable alternativ?. How do you defend the Rockets other than pray that they don't hit threes?

    I agree that Dwight posting up is what you want if you're the defense, he only shoots around 45% on post up situations and he turns the ball over more often. However, Dwight's fg% is 80% on pick and roll situations so you have no choice but to crowd the paint when he rolls to the basket--especially when James Harden is the guy handling the pick and roll. Honestly I think our chances of winning a championship are contingent on how well McHale can sell Dwight on the philosophy that he should post up less while focusing more on the pick and roll.

  • BrentYen says 5 months ago

    Love the piece, well written. I still think ROX need to come out with more plays for D12 to get the ball down low without having to back defenders down.

  • MichaelPina says 5 months ago

    @Johnny Rocket. No coach will allow his defense to get bludgeoned at the rim for four quarters without doing something about it. It's like a boxer who repeatedly allows punches to the body just so he can protect his face.

  • Johnny Rocket says 5 months ago

    If I had to defend the Rockets, I would make Howard beat me. No double teams until the very end of the shot clock. I'd force him to work my starting center on the post, and I'd foul him liberally to take away dunks and layups. He might end up scoring 30-35 points, but it might take the Rockets out of their offense and lead guys like Harden, Lin, and Parsons to force some shots. It isn't a very good strategy, admittedly, since you are guaranteed to give up a certain number of relatively easy points--and risk losing your centers to foul trouble--but what is really the viable alternativ?. How do you defend the Rockets other than pray that they don't hit threes?

  • 2016Champions says 5 months ago

    Fun fact: In 2009 ORL made 39% of 3s with Dwight on court, 35.7% without.

  • 2016Champions says 5 months ago

    The people who call Dwight overrated don't realize how impactful he is defensively, according to a study by Kirk Goldsberry Dwight scares people from attacking the paint more than any other big man in the league--Kirk called this "invisible blocks".

    Offensively, I understand why people say Dwight is overrated especially when compared to centers like Marc Gasol. Sure, Dwight draws so much defensive attention that he opens up a ton of space for shooters, but Dwight doesn't have the offensive skills Marc Gasol has.

    The problem is that people aren't saying Dwight is just overrated offensively, they're saying he's overrated overall which is just wrong. Dwight's impact on the defensive end is as significant as Lebron's impact on the offensive end--sounds crazy because defense doesn't get the same respect offense does. Dwight definitely deserves his title as the best center in the NBA, and for what it's worth Dwight led the league in RAPM in 2011.