By: Richard Li
In school, I was introduced to a sociological theory that suggested institutional change occurs without anyone noticing. Those few individuals or firms who are aware of the change earliest, either through foresight, cheating, or dumb luck, then become institutional leaders. Failure to recognize and adapt to institutional changes results in falling behind. Most unwilling to recognize and adapt to change are firms who were once leaders and believe that their behavior, which led to their success, does not require alteration. Meanwhile the ground beneath them shifts.
Dwight Howard is the last of a dying breed. Twenty years ago, NBA teams were built around dominant big men who established themselves in the post and never moved from there. They were the types who "you could just throw the ball to," to quote Kenny Smith.
However, the ground shifted. The NBA changed in a way that makes big men behave differently in order to be effective. They post less, shoot jump shots, and pass regularly. Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets, enamored by old videos, the legacy of Houston centers, and their power post head coach, don't seem to have received the memo. It's 2014, but they think it's 1998. As a result, Howard has become a Maserati that is being driven like a Buick.
How has the ground shifted?
Rules changes have directly limited the capacity of big men to navigate post space. Illegal defense rules were first eliminated. Then rules were changed to broaden five second violations. Outside the paint, rules changes have made life easier on perimeter players. Hand checking was eliminated. Clear path fouls were added. Shooters, particularly on jump shots, received more protection.
We're also smarter. Like, much much smarter. We have more data than we know what to do with and can't find enough people to analyze it. We know what cliches are actually true and what cliches aren't. We're no longer guided by talking heads but by evidence. What does all this mean?
In essence, it's harder to score in the paint and easier to score outside the paint. Perimeter players are more protected when they shoot, and especially when they penetrate. Teams recognized this and schemed their offenses away from lane-clogging big men to skilled perimeter players.
Equally important is that our increased smarts has really clued us in to the importance of the 3-point shot. It's somewhat remarkable that we didn't figure this out earlier, since it doesn't take many brain cells to understand that 3 > 2. Here's a thought exercise.
Dwight Howard's FG% last year was 59.1%. That's pretty amazing and was actually 3rd in the league. From a points perspective, that's the equivalent of shooting a hair under 40% from three. Last year, there were 27 players who shot at least that well. In other words, assuming they're on the same team, it's more advisable for any of those 27 players to take an average 3-point shot than for Howard to take his average 2-pt shot.
So if you're Dwight Howard, and you're demanding the ball in the post from Trevor Ariza (who shot 40.7% from 3 last year), you better make your shot at least 62% of the time, or else it's better to let Ariza take a 3. According to Synergy Sports, last year Howard's points per possession on his post ups was 0.76. While it's not directly transferable, that imperfectly equates to at 38% FG%, which equates to a 26% 3FG%. Basically, it's better for me to shoot 3s than for Howard to post up.
What does this mean?
By now, most teams have recognized this landscape and are adapting to it. I don't need to link to data for you (especially as Rockets fans) to know that 3-point attempts are increasing like crazy. For big men, this means their role has changed. No longer the focal point of offenses, they are instead primarily valued for their defensive and rebounding abilities, which are still vital. On the offensive end, most have become pick and roll divers (think Deandre Jordan). Recognizing the advantage of drawing the opponent's big man away from the basket so their perimeter teammates can penetrate more freely, many have developed passable jump shots that they use in pick and pop situations (Andrew Bogut). Some (very smartly) have extended their range to include 3-pointers (Chris Bosh). Those who can't sometimes become offensive pivot points to facilitate movement and force their defenders to guard them away from the paint (Joakim Noah).
None of the players listed in parentheses would be considered dominant post presences, yet they're all very useful players. More importantly, they are what they should be given the institutional landscape. Ignoring the landscape and these trends and doing something different, like establishing a consistent post up presence a la Dwight Howard, is begging for disaster.
Howard's usage is detrimental to his team
This table shows the offensive ratings for each player's team with the player on the court and with the player off the court (all data from last regular season). Howard might be considered the biggest offensive threat out of these centers (he is certainly the only consistent post up player), but his team actually misses him the least compared to the others. In fact, Deandre Jordan, who might be considered the least offensively skilled out of all these guys, is missed the most. Here's more data:
This is the assist percentage of each player's team with each player on and off the court (again, from last regular season). Dwight Howard is the ONLY ONE out of all these centers whose team has a higher assist percentage with him off the court than on it. This isn't surprising. After all, over half of Howard's offensive possessions are post ups. When that happens the other four players run to the other side of the court and wait for Howard to make his shot 38% of the time. What's not happening is whipping the ball around for an open 3. Want more?
This is data from last year's playoffs. Yes, it's a small sample size, but I chose it because Howard and Asik actually played at the same time for much of the playoffs. This means that their teammates frequently overlapped, as opposed to Howard playing with starters and Asik playing with bench players, which would obviously bias the offensive data. With similar teammates, the Rockets had a better offensive rating with Asik and a higher assist %. Both suffered more when Asik was off the floor than when Howard was (again, assist % went down with Howard on the floor).
Asik is not a better player than Howard. But how he plays/is used might be more appropriate for the 2014 NBA.
Head, meet brick wall, over and over again
I always find it odd that this is happening under Daryl Morey's watch. If I can find this data, you know his egg heads already have. In many ways the Rockets are the new leaders of the institution. But in this one very specific way, the Rockets are the old guard curmudgeons who refuse to change, even in their best interests. They're that old school corner shop that insists on handling accounting via paper and pencil instead of using that crazy new computer thing that the young hooligans like. Why is this? I have some ideas.
Dwight Howard's ego has something to do with it. He was raised on those same Hakeem and Shaq videos that we were. He's been called the best center in the league for about 8 years now. And the best center dominates in the post. Legendary big men dominate in the post. So Dwight Howard must dominate in the post. Right?
Kevin McHale is Howard's coach. He made his living dominating in the post (30 years ago...).
Former players are overrepresented in the basketball talking headosphere. This is important because, referencing first part of this long post, old leading firms are least likely to recognize institutional landscape changes. After all, it was Kenny Smith who said Dwight Howard isn't the type of player "you just throw the ball to" (implying that that type of player is good to have). Shaq is the one comparing Dwight to himself. Clyde Drexler is the one who compares Dwight to Hakeem during home game broadcasts. In their inertia, they haven't recognized how the institution has changed and what that implies for someone like Dwight Howard. But their words are heard.
What's most upsetting is that Dwight Howard would be an INCREDIBLE "modern big man." He's super athletic, super fast, and already owns the defensive end of the floor. He can pick and dive to the basket better than anyone his size and intimidates everyone else away form rebounding. If he wouldn't focus so much on his irrelevant and antiquated post game, I'm sure he could be a very capable pivot point passer (I'm not going to get my hopes up about a jump shot). But until someone makes Dwight Howard and the Rockets wake up in this century, Howard is just going to be a shiny sports car that only gets driven on old neighborhood roads.