At the forefront of Dwight Howard’s issues with returning to the Los Angeles Lakers is his displeasure with head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system.
Howard’s frustration stems from not being as involved in the offense as he’s accustomed to, as evident from him posting the second-lowest usage percentage of his nine-year career (22.2 percent). With D’Antoni adjusting on the fly to an old and injured roster, and Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash needing touches, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Howard wasn’t utilized as often as he had been in the past.
Still, Howard’s free agency decision may very well come down to whether or not he believes he can flourish under D’Antoni’s guidance. The seven-time All-Star wants the ball run through the block, and not the perimeter, which was the case when Howard was the centerpiece of the Orlando Magic.
Though the Lakers can offer Howard a more talented roster than any of his other options, how the pieces mesh alongside him -- at least from his perspective -- is far from ideal. Howard wants to post up and spread the floor with an army of shooters, but that’s a difficult proposition given the Lakers’ key personnel.
Howard and Gasol have never been an optimal fit -- both players prefer to operate on the low block -- but Gasol’s passing ability and versatile skill set allow the two centers to coexist (much like he did with Andrew Bynum). Nash has spent most of his career as an elite practitioner of the pick-and-roll, so having him dump the ball in the post and spot up seems like a waste of his playmaking abilities. And, as Bryant kindly reminded everyone at the beginning of last season, he’s option No. 1 and will get his shots early and often.
If you compare the way the Lakers used Howard on offense in comparison with his Orlando days, one glaring difference sticks out: his decreased percentage of post-up plays.
In Howard’s final three seasons in Orlando, post-up plays comprised 57.5 percent of his possessions (2011-12), 59 percent of his possessions (2010-11) and 61 percent of his possessions (2009-10).
His percentage of post-up plays with the Lakers last season?
So, where did the other 12 to 16 percent of his offense go?
Pick-and-rolls (from 8.9 percent last season to 11.4 percent this season) and basket cuts (from 8.2 percent last season to 14.1 percent this season).
And what was the result?
A far less efficient version of Howard.
His true shooting percentage (57.3 percent) was well below his career average (59.8 percent), he produced the lowest offensive win shares of his career (2.8) and his turnover percentage crept up to the highest it’s been in three years (16.6 percent).
A significant portion of Howard’s struggles can be attributed to his shoulder and back injuries, which clearly hampered some of his athleticism and explosion. But even when Howard regained his mojo after the All-Star break, and his stats improved, he was hardly the dominant player that he or the Lakers had envisioned back in August.
This is where D’Antoni enters the equation.
Because of the sheer amount of offensive firepower at his disposal, D’Antoni tried adhering to the strengths of his players simultaneously, which often led to inconsistent results. This made Howard function less in the post and more on the move, as his increased involvement in pick-and-rolls and cuts showed.
That makes sense on paper because Howard has been among the league’s best pick-and-roll finishers for quite some time (he was ninth-best this season). But as Howard demonstrated throughout the season, he was reluctant to run the action consistently, especially if it meant compromising touches down low. Coupled with his decreased mobility, Howard’s turnovers (10.4 percent) and score percentage (68.9 percent) out of pick-and-rolls suffered considerably.
The challenge for D’Antoni then is figuring out how to fulfill Howard's wishes of posting up without ignoring the vast talent around him (and the post-up skills of Gasol and Bryant). His decision to have Howard play off of Gasol and Nash’s passing, and Bryant’s penetration, wasn’t as productive as he anticipated. For better or worse, Howard doesn’t enjoy running a ton of pick-and-rolls and cutting behind defenses; he seems to want to make post moves like the great big men before him.
Orlando had a specific system with versatile spot-up shooters at almost every position that allowed them to play through Howard and create open three-pointers out of all the attention he commanded.
The Lakers, meanwhile, don’t have the necessary shooting threats at each position to replicate what Howard wants. What they do have, however, is an elite shot-creator (Bryant), interior scorer (Gasol) and playmaker (Nash), the likes of which Howard has never played with. It’s a major adjustment for him, but one from which he could benefit.
As ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle pointed out, Howard appears to be searching for a center-centric offense that doesn't currently exist in the NBA. Most high-efficiency offenses now revolve around pick-and-rolls and the spacing and three-point shooting opportunities the play provides.
The closest the Lakers came to playing like Orlando was when Bryant went down with his Achilles injury and the Lakers began to post up more. For the season, post-ups accounted for 14.4 percent of the Lakers’ offense, but after Bryant went down, that figure jumped to at least 16.2 percent in the six remaining games (and topped 18 percent in five of the six contests).
It’s a small sample size, but an indication that D’Antoni is capable of adjusting to Howard’s inclinations. With Bryant possibly out until December or January, the Lakers would have a couple months to restructure the offense to appease Howard (if he re-signs), and then figure out how to readjust once Bryant returns.
For the partnership to be fruitful, Howard and D’Antoni each need to make sacrifices and find a reasonable compromise. Howard will have to accept that the Lakers are too talented to follow a simple offensive model that ignores the strengths of his teammates, and D’Antoni will have to settle for fewer pick-and-roll actions and more post-ups for No. 12.
That’s the only way this would work.
<i>Stats used in this post are from NBA.com/Stats, MySynergySports.com and Basketball-Reference.com.</i>