Houston, we have a solution to the problem…
The Dwight Howard free agent saga has reportedly ended as Dwight Howard has decided to take his talents to Houston to play alongside All-Star slasher James Harden. Since no actual paperwork can begin until July 10th, any fan that knows Dwight Howard well enough should know that this might not be over until he has put ink on that paper. However, for the sake of this article, we will assume Dwight Howard is 100% sure on the Houston Rockets. Let’s explore the effect Dwight will have on Houston – in transforming their role in the Western Conference, the chemistry issues or bonuses he will experience in Houston and what Houston needs to ensure their viability as a contender in the Western Conference.
Dwight’s Stint in Los Angeles in Review
We cannot assess the future of Dwight’s career without assessing where it has come from the past few years. Disregarding the alarming amount of media scrutiny Dwight has faced in the past two years, injuries are the most worrisome part of his track record in his final year in Orlando and only year in Los Angeles.
Dwight was arguably the most fearsome defender (You don’t really need to argue because 3 Defensive Player of the Year’s in a row speaks for itself – but some people just love to argue) and most athletic big man in the NBA prior to his back injury in Orlando. He swatted shots like he was playing fourth graders on the court:
However, we haven’t seem the same explosiveness from Dwight Howard since the back injury, followed by surgery, he suffered in the 2011-2012 season in Orlando. It raised very large question marks about Dwight’s longevity in the league and rightfully so as knee injuries and back injuries are some of the most difficult injuries to recover from as a professional athlete. Especially for a player like Dwight Howard, whose career relies upon his athleticism that fuels his unbelievable vertical, dunking and defensive abilities.
Dwight came back strongly, but clearly struggling to utilize his exceptional second-jump ability that makes him impossible to keep away from defensive and offensive rebounds. Then, in Los Angeles Dwight began struggling through a shoulder injury that seemed to be reaggravated nearly every game. The injury was only exacerbated with the rise of the Hack-A-Dwight defense that became popular with Dwight’s free throw struggles.
Despite injuries, Dwight still managed to start 76 of the 82 games in the 2012-2013 NBA season. However, statistically Dwight saw a reduction across the board. Much of this was due in part to the offensive system developed by Mike D’Antoni that Dwight Howard never fully meshed with. Additionally, it took Kobe Bryant nearly half the season before he decided passing would be the better option to lead his team to victory.
Dwight’s 2012-2013 statistics: 17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 2.4 BPG and a 58% Field Goal Percentage
Dwight netted his lowest points per game totals, rebounds per game totals and free throw percentage (disregarding the 2011-2012 season) since his sophomore season back in the 2005-2006 season. The greatest issue was that Dwight saw a diminished role in a Mike D’Antoni run offense – so the vast majority of his statistical drops did not truly reside only at the fault of Dwight. Dwight only averaged 10 Field Goal Attempts per game, one of the lowest of any of his NBA seasons.
Dwight never felt comfortable in Los Angeles – he never seemed to get along with Kobe (a common trend with stars who play with Kobe), he never found his niche in the D’Antoni offense and the Los Angeles media hounds clearly affected Dwight’s confidence and outgoing personality on and off the court.
Dwight leaves Los Angeles for Houston
With roughly five teams aggressively making cap space and pursuing Dwight Howard, Howard chose the Houston Rockets (reportedly) as his new team. It’s one of the best moves Dwight could have made for his career – in leaving Los Angeles (Yes, Lakers fans you read that sentence right). You may argue that the Lakers tradition, the Los Angeles fan base and Kobe Bryant would have brought Dwight the championship he seeks, but it wouldn’t because Dwight doesn’t work with D’Antoni.
The true downfall of my argument is that we never got to truly see what the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers were capable of because of the ridiculous amount of injuries nearly every player on their team faced at one point or another. However, if you thought at any stage of the season that the Lakers were capable of defeating the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder (pre-Westbrook injury) or even the Los Angeles Clippers (I went there because there’s no team the Clippers worked harder to beat than the Lakers), then you are delusional.
The Dwight Effect
Houston experienced a breakout season behind newly acquired James Harden’s leadership and Kevin McHale’s ability to morph the team’s strategy to fit their individual talents. Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons all saw solid performances last year on their new team. However, in the postseason they clearly lacked some of the pivotal pieces required to compete in the Western Conference and Dwight Howard’s arrival will have a profound affect on the team.
Dwight Howard is one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA – his 58% field goal percentage from last season trailed only DeAndre Jordan’s 64% in the 2012-2013 season. According to Teamrankings.com, Dwight’s Field Goal Percentage has been in the top three in the league since 2007 Dwight’s efficiency will be a huge boost for a Rockets team that will need to become much more responsible with their possessions this coming season. He creates an entirely new option for offensive schemes on a Rockets team that flowed through only James Harden last season.
The Houston Rockets were 7th in rebounds per game in the NBA without newly acquired Dwight Howard who will skyrocket (Pun Intended) their rebounding statistics. With Dwight Howard, the Lakers were 4th in the NBA in rebounds per game. Dwight Howard will bring both tangible and intangible defensive elements to a Houston Rockets team that relied upon run-and-gun type offensive schemes with relatively absent defense except from resident Center Omer Asik.
The Houston Rockets were ranked 28th in the NBA in points allowed per game – allowing teams to score 102.5 points per game against the Rockets defense. Dwight Howard’s presence in the paint even without the blocks and shot alterations Dwight brings to the table will improve this ranking – although it will not vault them into one of the top defenses in the NBA. Non-believers in this assumption of mine might argue that the Lakers were 22nd in points allowed per game with Dwight – how is it going to be any better in Houston? It’s a fair question, but this is an absolute testament to the lack of defense the in Mike D’Antoni scheme utilized in Los Angeles – they don’t play defense. Not to mention the lack of wing defenders the Lakers employed, something the Rockets will have to do to employ a stronger defense to complement Dwight.
Omer Asik did extremely well defensively for the Houston Rockets last season, but his contributions are compared to that of Dwight Howard’s. According to a study done at the 7th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they talked about the “Dwight Effect.” (The full study can be found in the hyperlink just posted).
The Dwight Effect can best be described by thinking back to the Roy Hibbert defense that gave the Miami Heat such great headaches in the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2013 NBA Playoffs (Ironic that I chose to use another player to describe the Dwight Effect other than Dwight? I thought so too). Players will drive inside and either suffer against the length and athleticism of rim protectors like Dwight Howard, Larry Sanders and Roy Hibbert or might even choose not to drive in at all as a result of their presence in the paint. It’s an intangible statistic that isn’t appreciated enough – we always look at blocks and steals as true measures of defense, but shot alterations and the fact that player won’t even approach the paint because of Dwight Howard is invaluable.
Are the Rockets truly contenders for a Championship?
Presently? No. Dwight Howard does not immediately make this team a viable NBA Championship contender, especially in the Western Conference that is jam-packed with tough and seasoned playoff-bound teams. They have one of the most dominant pick-and-roll combinations in Dwight Howard and James Harden, but there are many role players missing to call this team a Championship possibility. Other than Harden and Dwight, the only players even worth naming are Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin on the Houston Rockets which means they have plenty more pieces to add.
First and foremost, this team needs those coveted 3-and-D guys who can stretch the floor around Dwight, run the break and burn teams from the perimeter. They lost Francisco Garcia and Carlos Delfino due to free agency and making cap room for Dwight’s eventual signing with them. They need to fill these slots with some guys who can be a threat on both offense and defense. The Lakers greatest misuse of Dwight Howard this season was not having guys who could guard their players on the wing. This put the onus of defense at the basket on Dwight and when you’re the only defense anchor on the team it’s easy to get into quick foul trouble (something Dwight saw a lot of this season).
Secondly, the signing of Dwight Howard has already caused some issues in the locker room – most specifically with Omer Asik. As you would expect, the current starting Center doesn’t want the coveted free agent who will take his position. This obviously does not bode well for the Rockets-Asik relationship. It has already been rumored that Asik is currently being used as a sign-and-trade or trade piece for the Rockets which is smart since it’s clear Asik will not play with the same fervor he did now that he is no longer a starter.
Lastly, Jeremy Lin. He averaged 13.4 PPG and 6.1 APG in his first season with the Houston Rockets and saw some success in his first true stint as a starter. The Rockets posteason capabilities were marred by the continued re-aggravation of Lin’s chest injury in the playoffs. The question is: Is he the point guard of the future for the Rockets? I believe Lin may suffice for now, especially with Patrick Bevereley who played very well at Point Guard during the series against the Thunder in Lin’s absence. Still, the Rockets should definitely begin looking into a better option at Point Guard. The Rockets are a couple pieces away from being a team really looking into for playoff viability in the Western Conference, but they have to stack on role players or get that last solid centerpiece that can work with Dwight and James Harden to be successful against teams like the Thunder and Spurs.
It’s been rumored the Rockets are in talks of a sign-and-trade offer with the Hawks for Forward Josh Smith. If that doesn’t work out, the addition of Rajon Rondo would absolutely turn this team into a title contender. I’ve been saying Rondo could benefit a lot of teams lately, but I think more so than any now – the Rockets would be a team he could make a title contender (And besides, we know he isn’t interested in leading the rebuilding phase in Boston). James Harden is fully capable of handling the ball and being the main creator, but adding Rondo (or a Point Guard of similar skill) could really move this team into winning form.
Dwight’s addition to the Houston Rockets was well worth the fiasco that Dwight Howard put teams through to get to him, but Houston Rockets cannot become complacent with just the addition of Howard – they are a couple pieces away from truly being successful in the West.