On Dwight Howard in the post

In an admirably diligent effort at image rehabilitation, Dwight Howard has been making the rounds of late, first in a televised appearance on TNT (where I thought he came off surprisingly well) and most recently, in an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan.

The MacMullan interview in particular was a treasure trove of bizarre revelations, from Howard’s philosophical views on team-building (“I was saying, ‘Let’s have Magic cereal, Magic vitamins with our players’ faces on it so they can get to know our team.'[??????])” to Howard’s admission that despite having practiced shooting 1,000 shots per day, it was the fear of failure preventing him from actually shooting those same shots when it mattered (“I didn’t want to turn on the TV and see people say, ‘Dwight is taking all those outside shots, he’s screwing around, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to win.'”).

But most noteworthy was Howard’s recount of an in-season interaction with team general manager Daryl Morey:

“I felt like my role was being reduced. I went to [Rockets general manager] Daryl [Morey] and said, ‘I want to be more involved.’ Daryl said, ‘No, we don’t want you to be.’ My response was, ‘Why not? Why am I here?’ It was shocking to me that it came from him instead of our coach. So I said to him, ‘No disrespect to what you do, but you’ve never played the game. I’ve been in this game a long time. I know what it takes to be effective.”’

As I predicted that morning, that account–of course–was a gross oversimplification of what actually went down.

The episode was significant in that it underscored the total lack of self awareness which most greatly characterizes Dwight Howard.  Per NBA.com stats, Howard got 297 touches in the post this season, good for 13th in the league among players with at least 100 possessions.  But among those players, Howard was 49th in efficiency, scoring .82 points per possession, a rate on par with Jordan Hill.  (Interestingly, James Harden scores .91 points per possession in the post).

Among players with over 200 post touches, a group of just 22 players, Howard’s .82 PPP ranked 17th, though his frequency of 30.5% was the 6th highest.  (i.e. the percentage of times a player executes a given play type).  Ironically, Paul Millsap, who had the highest PPP of that group (1.04) only had a frequency of 16.0%.

So, in essence, Dwight Howard–he of the demands for more post touches–got the ball in the post as much as just about anyone in the league, while producing at one of the lowest rates.

Breaking things down a bit more, Howard obviously got the most post touches on the Rockets, but he was the fourth most effective post-up scorer on the club, in terms of PPP, behind Montrezl Harrell, Harden, and Motiejunas.

And here’s another point for comparison.  On isolation plays, Josh Smith scored .85 points per possession, Corey Brewer scored .86 points per possession, and Michael Beasley scored .98 points per possession.  So basically, it was a better option to let the three most unpredictable guys on the roster isolate, than to let Dwight Howard post up.

More: Ariza and Terrence Jones spot ups produced a PPP of .89.  Corey Brewer spot ups produced a PPP of .79.  So, letting these guys chuck away was almost as good or a better option than feeding Dwight Howard in the post.

When they made their pitch to him in that now-famous meeting in L.A., the Rockets undoubtedly told Howard they hoped to feature him as the roll man in Harden pick and rolls, a spot where Howard produced a 1.10 PPP this year.  (Sidenote, and even further fodder for the Capela comparison: Capela had a PPP of 1.17 as the roll man).  But despite looking deadly whenever they actually went to it, the Rockets just never ran the play (9.3% frequency for Howard as the roll man this year), a state of affairs that absolutely bewildered Rockets fans for the past three years.  No one could definitively pinpoint why the Rockets never utilized this seemingly unstoppable play, until now.  Howard just didn’t want to do it.  Despite being what made him great, it was beneath him.

Having Hakeem Olajuwon in Howard’s ear the past several years has only made matters worse, in a strange twist of irony, with the former great’s whispers only emboldening Howard towards self-destruction.  When you’re just not good at something, you need an intervention, not for someone to tell you to keep at it; that process has only taken Howard’s focus away from his actual strengths and reaffirmed his beliefs in how a “true” big man should play.

But this is where we are now.  Howard is probably gone now and the Rockets will move on.

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About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of www.Red94.net.

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