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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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