After Dwight Howard agreed to sign with the Rockets in July, the next point that became the talk of the off-season was what Daryl Morey would choose to do with Omer Asik. Asik, who had come over to the Rockets 2012 to become the starter at center, was reportedly unhappy with the move and wanted to be traded somewhere where he could be a starter. And with a pair of bulky centers with little ability to stretch the floor, the Rockets seemed unlikely to play the two together. At least that is what was expected.
Little did we know the Rockets would do just that. All preseason, Kevin McHale discussed how he could see Howard and Asik starting together, and many, including me, chalked it up to nothing more than posturing. The thought that two players who needed to be near the basket to be effective could be successful together in a system that is predicated on maintaining spacing seemed ridiculous. But as the preseason drew to a close, that was exactly what the Rockets did.
Still, I needed to see it to believe it, and on Wednesday night in the season opener, Kevin McHale put the Twin Towers lineup into action. Asik played 26 minutes, Howard played 35, and the two shared the floor for 13 minutes. Essentially, McHale played the two together for the first six minutes of each half, before staggering their minutes for the remaining 18 minutes.
What we saw was a tremendous effort down low, and a continuous defensive effort that lasted all 48 minutes. The Rockets controlled the boards all night long, out-rebounding the Bobcats 54-37, and Al Jefferson, who has averaged a ridiculous 20 points and 13 rebounds in starts against the Rockets for his career, was held in check to the tune of just 13 and 8,
More importantly, the Bobcats were completely unable to get any dribble penetration into the paint. The guards were forced to stay on the perimeter, and none of the Bobcats big men were able to get any traction offensively down low. When Howard went to the bench, he had Asik coming in to replace him, and unlike the former backup Greg Smith, Asik is capable of shutting down the paint in his own right. It's really easy to underestimate the effect the 13 minutes that Howard is off the floor for, but we saw last night just how valuable it is having Asik to come in and backup Howard.
Last year, when Asik was on the court, the Rockets were 6.5 points per 100 possessions on the defensive end than they were when he was off the court. That is a dramatic difference, and the Rockets benefited enormously last night from having Asik on the floor instead of Greg Smith when Howard went out.
But the more interesting thing was how the two played together on the floor together. Simply put, it was a mixed bag. In the 13 minutes the two shared on the court, the Rockets were outscored 25-21. That score gives nothing in terms of statistical significance with such a small sample size, but the qualitative results were fairly interesting.
Dwight Howard is never going to be a featured post player, but having Asik also on the floor made him struggle even more. The first play of the game was a perfect example. Dwight tried to post up Josh McRoberts, and when he tried to make a faceup move to the baseline, he was forced out of bounds by McRoberts. Even if he had been successful in getting by McRoberts, however, he would've been facing Al Jefferson, who was waiting just across the paint and ready to contest his shot.
The same thing happened in the first three minutes of the third, as Asik and Howard were sharing the floor together. All four Rockets other than Dwight Howard cleared out of the near side of the floor, allowing Howard to isolate against Jefferson in the post, but Howard once again was forced out of bounds with McRoberts waiting to contest right across the paint.
Defensively, the two were very successful in cutting down the Bobcats' looks in the paint, but as the game wore on, Charlotte learned to exploit their deficiencies in guarding shooters on the perimeter. Midway through the third quarter, Josh McRoberts started drawing Howard outside, and when Howard wouldn't fully commit to guarding him out there, he started shooting. After two threes in two minutes from the big man, Kevin McHale was forced to call timeout to take out Asik for Omri Casspi.
The season is young, and there are a number of things the Rockets can do to improve the pairing of Asik and Howard, but after game one, it's clear that it is going to have to be a situational lineup. Against the Grizzlies or Nets, the dual big man look will certainly work, but when the Rockets face the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony at power forward, there's no way they can get away with both Howard and Asik on the floor.
Still, even in just one game, we saw the value of having a pair of dominant big men. Last year, when the Rockets went to their backup center, the defense and rebounding absolutely disintegrated. Last night, Howard and Asik took turns guarding the paint and grabbing rebounds, and in doing so, the two of them out-rebounded the Bobcats on their own. It wasn't all good, but the Rockets have to feel pretty good about their prospects with a center rotation of Howard and Asik.
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