A Contender Built with a Calculated Risk

dwight

After starting the 2012-13 season as the team anointed to face Miami in the NBA Finals, injuries, age, and a lack of chemistry ultimately resulted in the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs. Dwight Howard’s dissatisfaction with the Lakers led him to accept a 4 year/$88 Million deal to play with James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey certainly deserves plenty of credit for going from the hot seat to one of the most enviable positions in sports in just two years, but it might be wise for the NBA community to slow its effusive praise for Morey and the Rockets, as the Howard signing might not be the match made in heaven that some have predicted.

In the past, what made Dwight Howard such a special player is that a coach could surround him with average to below average defenders, and Dwight’s mere presence on the court would turn his team into an elite defensive unit. From the 2008-09 to 2010-11 seasons, Howard’s Orlando teams were first, second, and third in defensive efficiency, respectively. In 2008-09, Howard led Orlando’s top-rated defense to the NBA Finals, beating LeBron James and his 66-win Cavaliers team in the Conference Finals. In 2010-11, Howard posted a career best 26.1 PER, while once again turning a group of mediocre defenders into an elite defensive unit. But at a time when Howard should have been reaching his peak, something seemed to go wrong with him.

On the surface, Howard’s 2011-12 campaign looks just fine. Despite playing only 54 games, he posted an elite PER of 24.2 and was once again an MVP candidate. But if one looks a little closer, problems begin to emerge. He posted his lowest Win Shares/48 since his age-21 season, and Orlando’s defense declined. The Magic finished 13th in defensive efficiency, and Howard missed the playoffs because of back surgery. For Dwight apologists, this season is easy to explain away; Howard was suffering through a back injury, clashing with a coach he hated, and playing on a team with little to no chemistry.

The subject of what went wrong during Howard’s one year with the Lakers has been beaten to a pulp by the media. It would be overly simplistic to call Howard soft or babyish; he only missed six games in a season where he seemed perpetually hurt. Howard also turned a team of players who were either well past their prime, indifferent defenders, or terrible defenders into a roughly average defensive unit. His PER of 19.4, while disappointing compared to his previous seasons, was still solid. But last season’s disappointment should be quite alarming to the Rockets. While a Howard defender would mention that he was limited by injuries last year, is it not more alarming that Howard was limited by the same injury for approximately fifteen months? If I were an NBA general manager, I would feel uncomfortable paying a man whose back injuries remained a consistent concern $88 Million.

But perhaps even more alarmingly for Daryl Morey and the Rockets, Dwight Howard revolted against an offensive system that was remarkably akin to what Houston plans to run this season. Apart from his distaste for being Kobe Bryant’s personal screener and rebounder, Howard despised Mike D’Antoni’s fast paced offensive system that required the ailing Howard to sprint up and down the court every possession.

Howard chose to leave this fast-paced offense, for an even faster one. Howard objected to D’Antoni’s reliance on pick-and-rolls, yet Houston’s offense makes heavy use of them. Unless Houston (and James Harden) is willing to compromise on the offensive system that ranked 6th in efficiency to appease a player whose days as an offensive force of nature may be gone, they may have a problem.

This gamble might make more sense if the alternative options at center consisted of perennial journeymen who are essentially replacement-level players, but the Rockets’ incumbent center is far more than that. While James Harden was putting the whole league on notice, Omer Asik quietly and unspectacularly emerged as the elite rim protector Daryl Morey had envisioned when he signed him away from Chicago. Just as LA was dependent on Howard for defense, Houston’s defensive fate lay in the hands of Asik every night. When on the court, Asik turned a group of mediocre-to-bad defenders into a top-10 defense, but when Asik hit the pine, Houston transformed into a defensive train wreck, equivalent to a bottom-five unit. Considering that, Asik was probably the 2012-13 Rockets’ second-best player, despite his offensive limitations.

Morey’s strategy is part of a longstanding belief that apart from rookie scale contracts, the best deal in the NBA is a max contract on a superstar. This has been proven over time to be great value, but for the signing to be a good decision Howard must return to his previous superstar form. However, if Howard for the next four years looks like he did with the Lakers this past season, Morey will not have invested in one of the league’s very best players. If Howard is unable to return to form, Houston will be capped out with limited roster flexibility and a core that is not as good as Oklahoma City’s or Miami’s.

The Howard signing’s success is dependent on a few uncertainties going Houston’s way. Morey is limiting Houston’s future cap flexibility on the assumption that Howard will be able to return to form from two years ago, despite the fact that Howard seemed unable to heal from a back injury that could become a chronic issue. He is investing in a 27-year-old center who is an avowed detractor of the offense that led to Houston’s success last year and might never be the athletic force of nature he was earlier in his career.

Knowing this, why would Morey relegate one of the league’s best defensive centers to the bench in order to take the risk of signing a player that might not be that much of an improvement? Maybe Morey truly believes that Howard is a good investment and is opening up the possibility of packaging Asik with other players like Jeremy Lin in a deal for another stud down the road. Who knows? Regardless, signing Howard definitely improved Morey’s job security, even if that was not his intention at all. We’ll find out if the signing leads to a championship in Houston later on down the line.

Image courtesy of ESPN

Max Borowitz
Georgetown University Class of 2017

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