You can't always believe what your eyes are telling you.
As we watch these Rockets limp along to a disappointing 8-11 start and struggle in all facets of the game, one of the most vexing aspects has been Dwight Howard's lack of involvement in the offense.
He's been good on the defensive side, often covering for the numerous mistakes of the Houston perimeter defenders, and his rebounding, at 12.3 per game, is still elite. But at initial glance, he looks less engaged on the offensive side then ever. His 12.9 points per game are his lowest since his rookie season, as are his paltry 8.7 shot attempts per game.
The player brought into Houston to be the second part of a devastating 1-2 offensive punch is currently averaging about as many shots per game as Luis Scola, Stanley Johnson, Jordan Hill, Kent Bazemore and Nik Stauskas. Certainly not what anyone envisioned for a man with the reputation as one of the most dominant forces in the NBA. This is the same player who led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009 strictly on the attention he demanded and the opportunities he created for others.
In looking visually on the court for the cause of Howard's offensive drop-off and disengagement, one particular aspect stands out to our eyes like a sore thumb: Howard's post game.
Watching Howard work the post over and over feels like a sort of basketball Ludovico Technique. The only thing missing is Beethoven's Ninth playing over the loudspeakers at the Toyota Center and through our digital screens.
Howard calls for the ball, and if he's able to overcome what appears to be a severe lack of on-court awareness and avoid the steal or slap away from the backside help (god, how many times does it seem like we've seen this?), he'll back his man down and throw a robotic semi-shimmy that usually ends in only one of two ways- hook left or hook right.
It's usually ugly enough, awkward enough and painful enough that even if the shot goes in, we never, ever, ever want to see it again. Basketball's very own aversion therapy.
For a franchise and fan base spoiled over the years by the technical precision of Yao Ming's work down low, the beauty and grace of Hakeem Olajuwon and his Dream Shake, and the bruising power of Moses Malone pounding the block, Howard's post game seems downright rudimentary.
Combine that with the new age NBA rules on defending the paint that make the post-up a less efficient play than it's been in the past, and it's no wonder it seems the Rockets are going to Dwight in the post less than ever. It doesn't work, right?
First, the misconception that Howard's post game is a shrinking part of the Houston offensive system.
2015-2016 NBA post-up statistics
Howard is averaging 5.0 shots per game from post-ups, which is right in line with the 5.1 and the 4.7 he averaged the previous two seasons respectively. It's also the third highest average in the NBA behind Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside. His 8.3 post touches a game are also third behind Drummond and Marc Gasol.
So the Rockets are going to Dwight in the post. Well, he must be inefficient then, right?
Howard knocks down 3.0 of his 5.0 post shots per game for a shooting percentage of 60 percent, according to NBA.com/stats. The 3.0 field goals made from the post is again the third highest in the league. His post shooting percentage is down from in years past, but 60 percent is certainly nothing to scoff at and is not inefficient in anyone's book. Howard scores an average of 7 points per game on his 5 post shots once you add in the free throws.
It's certainly more efficient than watching Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Patrick Beverley and Ty Lawson jack up errant jumper after errant jumper and miss layup after layup. Those four players shoot just a combined 38 percent from inside the three-point line (a more direct comparison to Dwight's post ups than shots beyond the arc). And each of those players are getting roughly 4.5 two-point cracks at it per game.
As for the prevalent misconception by many, including a lot of us here at TDS (I even mentioned it earlier in this article!), that a Howard post up is simply a turnover waiting to happen?
Wrong one more time.
Howard only turns the ball over on 6.0 percent of his post up opportunities, which breaks down to less than half a turnover per game.
By comparison, Whiteside turns the ball over on 12.1 percent of his post ups. Marc Gasol is at 9.5 percent. Zach Randolph is at 11 percent. DeAndre Jordan is at 6.5 percent. Rudy Gobert is at 9.9 percent.
Howard may not be elite in that department — guys like Drummond (4.0 percent), Tim Duncan (2.1), DeMarcus Cousins (3.2) and Greg Monroe (2.8) turn the ball over less when operating down low — but he's far from the fumbling, black hole of turnovers we envision when we have our Rockets fan speculas on tight.
Where this all fits in to the Rockets' current plight is illustrated by when the team is least successful.
Rockets need to solve their 2nd Q doldrums. Houston is last in the NBA in 2nd Q scoring margin by a country mile. Were -15 at DET & shot 24%— Craig Ackerman (@ca_rockets) December 2, 2015
Rockets are also 27th in the NBA in 4th Q scoring margin. BOTH the 2nd and 4th quarter lulls coincide w/ James Harden resting.— Craig Ackerman (@ca_rockets) December 2, 2015
The Rockets obviously struggle mightily when James Harden's points hit the bench, and as the team looks for a secondary go-to scorer to carry them when The Beard is resting, they seem to have forgotten they have an 18.1 points per game career scorer ready and willing to step up when needed. Harden and Howard aren't always on the floor only together.
Though Dwight's post up shots per game are similar to seasons past, feeding an efficient post scorer with a low turnover percentage even more additional opportunities down low when the team sorely needs the scoring is a way to help bridge the minutes until Harden's back on the floor.
Consequently, with Howard's post shots up but his overall shots down, it also shows the Rockets are failing to get him the ball in more creative fashions than just the post-up.
The high pick and roll and the 4-5 pick and roll were both regular staples of the Rockets' offensive attack last season, and though the loss of Josh Smith in free agency leaves the team without a smooth-passing power forward (at least until Donatas Motiejunas returns to the floor) to execute the 4-5, the high pick and roll to Dwight should undoubtedly be a more regular play in the Houston set.
Coach J.B. Bickerstaff has begun to incorporate it again, but Dwight is currently 50th (yes, 50th!) in the NBA in roll attempts, so increasing those high percentage shots (Howard shoots 56.5 percent as the roll man) should be of prime importance. Getting the players involved where they can be most effective is one of the most pivotal duties of a head coach, and there's no doubting Howard is still potent above the rim and off the roll.
And when D-Mo finally does return, hopefully Bickerstaff has the good sense to work in the 4-5 and maximize the Lithuanian's excellent passing skill.
Motiejunas can help pick up the non-Harden scoring with his post game as well, though it's important to note that last year, Motiejunas shot a career-high 56 percent from the post, so his best overall season down low still doesn't measure up to the havoc Howard can cause when used properly.
Despite Lawson finally showing some signs of life over the last two games, the entire squad is mostly struggling with it's shot. The team is in dire need of some easy buckets, especially when Harden sits. While it may not always look pretty, and in fact, it sometimes may even make us agonize to look the other way, feeding Dwight in the post and getting him more involved on the pick and roll are the best ways to bridge those gaps in the second and fourth periods that are absolutely decimating the Rockets this season.
No one is saying Dwight should become the focal point of the offense, but there's no reason the Rockets shouldn't be looking to get Howard additional opportunities to help the team on the offensive end.