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How Will Dwight Howard Integrate with the Rockets?

The acquisition of Dwight Howard marks a turning point in the Rockets’ fortunes. At last, Houston has two bona fide stars, two potentially top-10 players that can form the foundation of a championship contender. This week and next, I’ll be looking at the impact of Howard’s acquisition on the Rockets as a team. This week, I examine Dwight’s potential contributions on offense; next week, I’ll do the same for defense.

In many ways, Dwight Howard is an ideal fit for Houston’s offense. The Rockets shouldn’t have to alter their offensive scheme much to accommodate Howard: Howard’s strengths as a pick and roll (henceforth PNR) roll-man play to the strengths of the Rockets’ offense, which emphasizes guard penetration (Harden/Lin) off of PNR plays and kick-outs to three-point shooters. Houston’s offense, already sixth-best in the league last season, should be even better with Dwight assuming a major role.

Last season, 42% of Houston’s possessions came on a combination of PNR plays and spot-up attempts (many of which were the result of PNR plays). On last season’s Lakers, Howard finished 11% of his possessions as the PNR roll-man and scored 1.29 points per possession (PPP) on such plays, good for 9th in the league. He also drew fouls on 23% of those possessions, an impressively high rate. Howard’s effectiveness as a PNR player seems to fit well with the Rockets’ emphasis on using this play as a way to generate penetration and efficient shots via three pointers, attempts at the rim, and free throws. Transition plays, which constituted 17% of the Rockets’ possessions, were another crucial component of Houston’s offense. Surprisingly, for such an athletic player, only 4% of Howard’s offense last season came on fast breaks while a whopping 45% of his offense came on post-up plays. This puzzling distribution of possessions can perhaps be explained by the fact that Howard played on a team whose starting back-court had a combined age of 73 years at the end of the season (although the fact that the Lakers tied for 4th in pace last season seems to belie this explanation). I expect a healthy proportion of Dwight’s post-up attempts to be redistributed towards PNR and transition opportunities in the Rockets’ offense next year.

Houston’s offense last season heavily emphasized the three-point shot. According to Hoopdata, Houston took 29 three’s per game, tied with the Knicks for the most attempts per game in the league. The Orlando teams that Dwight Howard played on were among the most prolific heavy-volume three-point shooting teams in the league. In the Stan Van Gundy years (’07-’08 until ’11-’12) in particular, the Magic were consistently near the top-five in both three-point attempts and three-point percentage. This was in no small part due to an offense designed around Dwight’s ability to draw help defense in the paint and create opportunities for the bevy of shooters (Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Ryan Anderson) the Magic had at their disposal. In the ’09-’10 season, a year in which the Magic led the league in both three-point attempts and makes per game, Orlando made 39% of its threes with Dwight on the floor and only 34% with Dwight on the bench. This difference of only 5% represents the difference between the best three-point shooting team last season (Golden State at 40%) and the 20th best team (Chicago at 35%).

A graphical illustration helps emphasize the extent to which the Rockets can duplicate and even improve upon the three-point shooting success that Dwight’s Orlando teams enjoyed. Below are two shot charts courtesy of NBA.com. The top chart represents the shot distribution of the ’12-’13 Houston Rockets, and the bottom one is the shot distribution of the ’09-’10 Magic. Note the similarities in the distribution and even in the number of attempts from each shot-zone (the Magic did take more mid-range shots, though).

Shotchart_1374013645373                       Shotchart_1374016328861

Last season, Dwight Howard had a usage rate of 22%, and his average usage rate on the Magic was around 25%. Given that Howard typically uses somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of his team’s possessions when he’s on the floor, he will likely soak up the bulk of Asik’s offensive possessions. This is not to say that Asik won’t get 20 or maybe even 30 minutes of playing time per night, but that Dwight should largely replace Omer in many of the Rockets’ most oft-used lineups (the four most commonly used line-ups last season all featured Asik). Replacing Asik with Howard should pay immediate dividends for Houston’s offense: Howard is a much more threatening roll-man (and a much better finisher around the rim), and defenses geared towards preventing the pass to Dwight off the PNR will have to concede driving lanes to Harden and Lin. The table below shows the offensive production of Asik and Howard last season as well as Howard’s production during the ’10-’11 season, in which he came in second in MVP voting:

Player Points/36 FG% at Rim FT% TS% PPP Roll Man PPP Post-Up
’12-’13 Asik 12.2 69% 56% 56% 1.02 0.63
’12-’13 Dwight 17.1 70% 49% 57% 1.29 0.74
’10-’11 Dwight 21.9 75% 60% 62% N/A N/A

Even in his diminished state last season, Dwight is the far superior offensive player. If he regains his former offensive dominance, the Rockets will have the makings of an offense that can compete with any in the league.

One dimension that Dwight brings on offense that Asik lacks is a post game. Post-ups formed only 4% of Houston’s offense last season, and the Rockets scored only 0.73 PPP on such possessions, 26th in the league. As I mentioned above, Howard was heavily utilized by the Lakers in the post last season. Unfortunately, he put up a pedestrian 0.74 PPP on these possessions. Whether this underwhelming performance was the result of the shoulder and back injuries that plagued him all season is unclear. What is certain, however, is that on paper, Dwight is the sort of physical specimen that should be able to bully his way into productive outcomes (either via his own shot, a drawn foul, or a pass to an open teammate) in the post. Dwight has never had Pau Gasol or Yao Ming level footwork nor does he have the skill and touch that elite low-post big men possess. Nonetheless, adding a competent post-player will help spice up the offense and give the Rockets a second (or perhaps a third if you count Lin) player who can create his own offense. And with Hakeem Olajuwan potentially on board as an exclusive consultant and a coach who was a legendary big man in his own right, Dwight will have every opportunity to improve his low-post game.

The biggest potential individual beneficiary of Howard’s presence is Jeremy Lin. During the hey-day of Linsanity, Lin’s offensive success was predicated on his PNR chemistry with Tyson Chandler, another athletic big man whose offense largely consisted of lobs and forays towards the basket. Dwight should be able to replicate much of Chandler’s threat as a PNR roll-man, providing space for Lin to do what he does best: attack the basket. One major difference between Chandler and Howard, however, is that Chandler is a much better free throw shooter. Although their career marks from the foul line are not all that different (64% for Tyson and 58% for Dwight), Chandler has become a vastly improved free throw shooter (70% in the last four years), a development that has contributed to his offensive success as teams are less willing to foul him after he catches the ball in the paint. Alas, Howard’s free throw shooting has exhibited the opposite trend throughout his career. He must work on his free throw shooting if he wants to reach his offensive potential and not hurt his team in late-game situations.

 Dwight Free Throws

It will probably take some time for Howard to develop chemistry with his teammates on offense. Provided that he returns healthy, however, the Rockets should be immediately better on offense and Houston should transcend its performance from last season to become a top-3 offensive team in the NBA.

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