Once the Dwight Howard acquisition became official, the first thing fans did — after praying at the altar of Kupchak, of course — was talk about how the Lakers would be a better defensive team. After all, before this past season when Tyson Chandler helped turnaround the Knick’s porous D, Howard had been the reigning 3 time defensive player of the year. And in contrasting his game with Andrew Bynum’s, Lakers fans were giddy at the prospect of having a more mobile big man that could hedge/recover in the pick and roll, still protect the paint by blocking and deterring shots, and do it all while not suffering on the defensive glass.
However, when comparing Howard to Bynum on the offensive end of the floor, many do not see an upgrade. In fact, many see Bynum as the better offensive player — or at least a player with a more polished and diversified attack. While I won’t get into who’s better, I can say that those critiques hold value. Over the years, Bynum has become one of the more polished pivotmen in the league. His combination of size, foot work, and touch around the rim make it so. Add in a burgeoning face up game and Bynum’s a fantastically efficient scorer with a hunger to bury his man.
But, that doesn’t mean Howard isn’t extremely effective in his own right. His game isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as Drew’s, but prettiness isn’t all that matters. Putting the ball in the basket consistently does and Howard does that quite well. Going into next season, we’ll find that Howard may do it differently than Bynum did but that he will boost the Lakers’ offense when he’s on the floor. Let’s explore how…
Howard in the post
One of the long held beliefs in criticizing Howard is that he “doesn’t have any post moves”. I’ve often bristled at this critique because it ignores the fact that Dwight does have a steady arsenal when working from the block, just one that is more mechanical in nature; one that is built off his ability to compromise his man with a combination of quickness and power rather than technique.
Per My Synergy Sports, Howard posted up 57.5% of the time, producing .88 points per play, while shooting 49.9%. All of these numbers are very good — they ranked him 55th in the league in this category — and in comparison to Bynum (54.6% post ups, .89 points per play, 46.2% shooting) we see that Howard produces at a level that is at least equal to (and some would argue better) than the man he’s replacing.
As mentioned, Howard uses a combination of quickness and power to set up his post work. Often times he’ll turn and face when working form the post and then jab step to get his man off balance before exploding into his move. From the left block, he loves to go middle and shoot a rolling hook and will counter with a drop step/spin move to the baseline if his man cuts off his drive. Because Howard has excellent burst and underrated feet when getting going to the rim, this primary/counter attack he’s developed is more than effective.
He also offers straight post up moves as well. When working from either block Howard will turn and face but then power dribble back into a standard back to the basket position to knock his man off-balance. From here, he can turn over either shoulder to shoot a little jump hook. From the left block he’s shown that he can hit a little lefty hook going baseline and from the right block he clearly likes to turn back over his left shoulder and shoot his righty hook off the glass. To be fair, these hook shots lack touch as he shoots them more like shot puts rather than flicking his wrist like Bynum (or Gasol) shoot theirs. But, Howard has shown he can make these shots with good consistency, regardless of how they look coming off his hand.
Overall, I liken Howard’s post up game to the boxing style of a puncher who is jab dominant but will then hurt you with his overhand right when you guard against his quick left (sort of like Lennox Lewis or Vlad Klitschko). This type of fighter doesn’t try to hurt you with a variety of punches — no upercuts, crosses, etc — he simply wears you down with his primary weapons over and over again. This may not be the most fun fight to watch, but they continue to win because they’re two trick ponies that mix up those tricks enough to do damage.
Howard in the Pick and Roll
Where Dwight is in a league of his own is as a finisher in the pick and roll. Dwight produced a staggering 1.36 points per play (2nd in the NBA) while shooting an absurd 74% in this action. If you compare this to Bynum (1.12 ppp, 57.1% shooting) you see a marked improvement, even though Bynum’s numbers are excellent. Howard’s quickness in darting into open space combined with his ability to make the difficult catch while finishing above the rim make him an absolute terror.
Beyond his finishing, however, the authority in which Howard dives into the teeth of the defense instantly draws extra defenders to him. This magnetism creates the floor spacing and passing angles his teammates feast on. With Howard on the floor the three point shooting percentages of Ryan Anderson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jameer Nelson were all much better than when he was on the bench.
This upcoming season, I expect to see the same type of impact from Howard on his Lakers teammates. Whenever Nash and Howard share the floor, the Lakers can run a high P&R and generate a good look simply due to the fact that Howard is going to set a crushing screen and then dive to the rim where he’ll either be able to make a catch and finish/get fouled or will draw in the defense in a way that opens up his teammates. Think of the open shots that can be created for Kobe or Pau or Ron or Jamison or Meeks…I could go on and on and this only considers the Nash/Howard scenario. Change this up to Kobe/Howard or even Pau/Howard (remember the Pau/Bynum P&R that produced so many good plays?) and the options open up even more.
Simply put, the Lakers have added one of the best pick and roll finishers (and Steve Nash to help set him up) to a team that finished 27th in points per play in having the roll man finish. Howard has the ability to transform this aspect of the Lakers’ offense in a similar manner to the way we expect him to help their defense.
What about the foul shooting?
There’s no avoiding the fact that Howard is a poor foul shooter. Last season he made only 49.1% of his FT’s and is a career 58.8% shooter from the stripe. In comparison, Bynum shot 69.2% last season and is a career 68.7% shooter. In pressure situations Howard’s not someone you want at the foul line and there will be times (probably many of them) where we’re all actively rooting for Howard not to catch the ball out of fear he’ll be fouled and will have to sink meaningful free throws. There’s just no getting around the fact that Howard performs poorly in this area and as a result, the Lakers’ team percentage will be drug down by his performance at the line.
However, what’s not said enough is that one of the reasons that Howard can have such a negative impact at the line is because he gets there so often. Last year Howard shot 10.6 FT’s a game, a mark that led the league by 2 attempts a game. Furthermore, Howard also led the league in fouls drawn at a whopping 8.5 per game, a full foul and a half more than the next most hacked man. If you compare Dwight’s numbers to Bynum’s (5.6 FTA’s per game, 4.7 fouls drawn), the difference is stark in terms of who is getting pounded more.
The fouls drawn per game is particularly important here. Dwight is essentially averaging a shade over 2 fouls drawn per quarter. In the NBA, teams shoot FT’s on an opponent’s 5th team foul. By getting hacked as often as he does, Dwight not only earns himself FTA’s but does so for his teammates as well as evidenced by the fact his team’s FT rate dipped to .232 when he sat versus .327 when he was on the floor.
Dwight’s already joining a team where Kobe shot the 4th most FT’s a game (7.8 per contest). Think of how many more Kobe can shoot simply because their opponent is in the penalty and a touch foul on the perimeter or a battle with his man for post position turns into a trip to the foul line. The same can be said for Nash when he’s trying to attack off the dribble or Gasol when he’s fighting for post position or going after a defensive rebound. Or what of the cleaner opportunities these players will get due to the fact that the opponent is actively trying not to foul? Or the better shots they’ll get because the opponent’s best paint defender is saddled with fouls and on the bench?
The Lakers will surely suffer some due to Howard’s penchant for missing while taking his own FT’s. But much like when Shaq was soaking up contact a decade ago, the Lakers will also benefit in the form of extra FT’s as a team that their better shooters can feast off of.
The Big Picture
Overall, Howard won’t always look like the best offensive player. His robotic post moves will have you longing for more Pau (or wish that Bynum was still here) and his FT shooting will have you wincing at least once a game. But his work in the P&R, how he runs the floor, and his ability play above the rim are among the league’s best. Add in the fact that he grabs nearly 4 offensive rebounds a game (and will open up those chances for Pau too), is a capable passer out of the double teams he sees, and the fact that his so called deficiencies of post scoring and foul shooting still come with great value embedded, and Dwight’s going to be a great addition on the offensive side of the ball.
*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com