We’re almost midway through the season, and the Houston Rockets have yet to experience a prolonged stretch of consistent two-way play.
Houston’s fallen to the Sacramento Kings (twice), been blown out horribly by the Oklahoma City Thunder (sans Russell Westbrook) and the Indiana Pacers, and lost to a hobbled Atlanta Hawks team that bravely scrapped 83 points together, all in the past month.
They’re far from bad, though, sporting the league’s fourth best offense (including its third best team True Shooting percentage) and 10th best defense. Some of their struggles in individual contests can be explained by the myriad lingering injuries to key players like Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Omer Asik (yes, he’s a key player), and Greg Smith.
The one constant, however, has been a revitalized Dwight Howard. Once again he’s the very best his position has to offer, and to date he’s been Houston’s Most Valuable Player. Howard’s the rock on 14 of Houston’s 15 most utilized five-man units, and over the past couple months he’s unleashed a devastating (and surprisingly varied) post game.
But it’s on the other end where Howard’s most had his work cut out for him. On some nights the three-time Defensive Player of the Year appears to be headed for a fourth trophy, while on others there are critical, preventable lapses (mostly not his fault) that send Houston into a momentary spiral.
The Rockets’ overall defense is top-10 with Howard on the floor and about average when he’s off. He plays a ton, too. Kevin McHale refuses to remove Howard from the game in Hack-a-Howard situations and usually lets him play through threatening times early on after he’s picked up multiple fouls.
When defending pick-and-rolls Howard sags back into the paint, either forcing a mid-range jumper from the guard or a pass back to the screener, also for a mid-range jumper. Sometimes, if Howard closes out hard, his man will try to take him off the dribble. Due to Howard’s awesome ability to slide while keeping his hands above his head this rarely works out well for whoever has the ball.
But most often he’s perfectly content receding back to the paint and waiting for the rebound. Letting someone take an open shot isn’t the best strategy in the world, but there are much worse options. (When Howard’s on the floor Houston’s opponents are 6% more accurate from the mid-range, according to NBA.com. They also attempt shots from that zone 4.4% more often.)
His unwillingness to leave the paint for fear of absolutely no Rockets protecting the rim or grabbing a rebound is somewhat fair, but that doesn’t make it helpful. At least a couple times this season there’ve been moments where Howard won’t go after a loose ball that’s literally rolling on the ground a few feet outside the paint.
It’s a trust issue, and teams with bigs who can knock down an outside shot (New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks, etc.) have given Houston issues.
Another spot where Howard’s presence, or lack thereof, is felt is in the corner. A serious area of weakness for them last season, opponents are shooting 34.4% from the corner when Howard plays and 35.9% overall. Only the Thunder, Mavericks, and Pacers defend it better than that first number, and the second places them seventh in the league.
Things turn into The Purge when Howard heads to the bench. There are no laws, no discipline, and all semblance of morality and human decency is abandoned in the worst way possible (maybe forget that last point). Every opponent turns into Shane Battier circa Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, and shots fly into the hoop at a 40% clip when launched from the corners; good for 19th overall.
Some of this is due to an increase in offense rebounds. But most of the time Houston’s players are simply too concerned with protecting the paint. The rate of corner threes attempted doesn’t change when Howard sits, but the quality of the shot is drastically improved.
In both pictures every Rocket is either in the paint or a foot away.
Ironically, the one area where Howard’s made his mark as an elite player is also Houston’s greatest concern: the restricted area, where opposing teams connect on 61.3% of their shot attempts, making Houston one of the 10 worst teams in the league.
Howard isn’t lackluster as an individual defending shots at the rim, and a lot of these struggles are more symptoms of Houston’s still-hilariously-awful perimeter defense than anything else.
The Rockets will consistently miss a rotation when Howard’s the help defender on 1-3 or 1-4 pick-and-rolls involving wings or power forwards. It’s a painful weakness that smart teams will easily exploit over and over again in a seven game playoff series.
Here we have Parsons and Beverley guarding a 1-4 high pick-and-roll against George Hill and David West. Not the smoothest “hedger” in the world, Parsons bangs into his teammate as West lumbers free into the lane. Beverley manages to cut Hill off at the elbow but West is still wide open. Why? Worried about leaving Paul George open on the perimeter, Harden doesn’t slide far enough over from the weak side to muddle West’s progress.
Why doesn’t Howard do something about it? Well, he’s busy guarding this guy named Roy Hibbert. In a world where God is a Rockets fan, Parsons would take Harden’s responsibility out on the perimeter and the two would switch. It isn’t the best situation—there’s a good chance Parsons’ miscue at the beginning screwed them from the start—but nothing is worse than an open layup. Had
Harden everyone rotated properly they wouldn’t have given one up.
Houston’s frontcourt personnel is another reason why they’re wet toilet paper near the basket. Howard has zero teammates who can really hold their own defensively in the post. Smith and Asik can, obviously, but both horrifically devastate Houston’s offensive spacing when paired beside Howard on the other end. (Also, at least one of them is always hurt.)
As hard as they try, Omri Casspi and Terrence Jones are far too small to bang down low. Howard will leave his assignment (and his feet) to help, but when he doesn’t get the block his man is left waiting to grab the offensive rebound for a point blank put back.
Teams have also done a good job attacking Houston quickly, before Howard can get back to where he’s most comfortable. Most of the time they use a big up top to direct traffic.
Here’s Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut lobbing a pass over Howard’s fingertips to David Lee, who has Jones completely sealed. See Harden on the weak side block? Think he slides over to take the charge? Haha. Of course not.
As you can see a lot of this isn’t Howard’s fault. But a few times this season he’s made the mistake of fronting his man in the post, or coming up far too high on the pick-and-roll. The consequences of doing so are swift and unpleasant.
Howard’s having a phenomenal first season as Houston’s center, but his margin for error is nonexistent playing alongside so many teammates who’re either outmatched or outwitted on the defensive end. Still, as time goes on he’ll need to trust guys who you’d like to think can’t stay incompetent forever.
It was mentioned earlier in this article that Houston’s defense is still average when Howard takes a seat, but those minutes largely come against opposing benches for less than 15 minutes every game. It’s scary to think how far this team would fall if Howard wasn’t there.
Michael Pina has bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.