Based off the evidence accumulated over the course of their careers, I have full confidence in making two pretty declarative statements:
1. Mike D’Antoni would prefer to run an offense featuring a spread pick and roll attack that generates easy shots at the rim and open three pointers around the arc.
2. Dwight Howard excels in the pick and roll, is one of the best finishers at the rim in the entire NBA, and would love to get more touches close to the rim.
Based off these two statements, from a strict X’s and O’s perspective, the Mike D’Antoni offense and the Dwight Howard skill-set are perfect matches. The goal, then, should be to find a way to maximize what both want to do while both sides show enough flexibility in order to make this partnership work. And if both sides do just that, the results will be fantastic.
The bending from both sides is actually pretty simple and straight forward once the noise and bluster is stripped away.
From Dwight’s side, he must embrace the fact that he’s one of (and likely) the best big man who can both set a screen and explode to the basket for a strong finish. He possesses a gigantic upper body and sets impressive screens when he commits fully to them. He also possesses unique athletic ability, with quick feet, excellent leaping ability, and good enough hands to make a variety of catches and then finish at the rim. Dwight must simply understand that in any offense he plays in his coach is going to ask him to set crushing screens and then get to the front of the rim to make himself available to score the ball. He’s simply too proven a player at this skill for it to not be a feature of the offense for any team he’s on.
From D’Antoni’s side, he must reinforce the idea that not every three point shot is a good one and that a look inside to his big man (be it Howard or Gasol) is a mandatory part of the offense. All too frequently offensive possessions unfolded this way: Lakers run a pick and roll with Dwight, the defense rotates away from the wing to clog the paint to take away Dwight’s dive, the ball goes to the wing and a three pointer is launched without nary a look inside to Dwight who is battling for position. Simply put, this must change. One of the ways to maximize the roll man is to roll him into post up chances. The Grizzlies do this with Zach Randolph all the time. If you go back to what made Dwight such a terror in Orlando, you’ll find that they explored this option of the offense quite often. The Lakers’ wings need it drilled into them that a look to the diving player into the post is a great option that needs to be explored more often.
Their are other issues beyond the X’s and O’s at play in order to make a Dwight and D’Antoni marriage work. If you believe recently surfaced reports, there are hurdles to clear in the form of better communication and the player leadership hierarchy also needs addressing.
However, winning often cures a lot of these ills. And the way to win is to maximize the talent you have on the floor and for the players to embrace their roles with full buy in. In order for this to occur with the Lakers, both the star big man and the head coach will need to be better at their jobs next season than the one that was just completed.
And, actually, this will need to be true whether Dwight returns or not. Because, like it or not, if Dwight actually goes to Houston he’s going to find a very similar scheme under head coach Kevin McHale as he sees in Los Angeles under Mike D’Antoni. And if Dwight really is gone next season, D’Antoni is going to find that he still has a big man in Pau Gasol who would love to get more touches in the post where he can create shots for himself and for teammates.
From where I sit, both D’Antoni and Dwight would be best off recognizing this now and coming to the realization that this really can be a match made in heaven. They only have to keep it simple and find a way to meet in the middle.