It's reductive reasoning to summarily dismiss the notion that the Houston Rockets could dramatically alter their offensive philosophy to suit the addition of free-agent center Dwight Howard and yet supersede the success they enjoyed last season playing at a breakneck pace. Even embracing the declarations of third-year coach Kevin McHale that the Rockets will showcase the same frenetic, attacking style with Howard that they almost mastered without him, recent evidence suggests that McHale has enough coaching acumen to adjust on the fly and still excel.
Two seasons ago, his first on the Rockets bench, McHale leaned heavily on the post wizardry of Luis Scola, who led the Rockets in points (1,025) and finished second in scoring to Kevin Martin at 15.5 points per game. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey famously revamped the roster the ensuing offseason in an attempt to dismount from the mediocrity treadmill and, with an entirely new cast of characters, McHale introduced what essentially amounted to an open post offense predicated on dribble penetration, three-point shooting and free throw proficiency.
En route to their first postseason berth in four seasons, the Rockets finished second in the NBA in field goals made (1,683) inside five feet from the basket and second in 3-pointers made (867). Their free throw rate (23.2 percent) was ranked fourth. McHale fully embraced the additions of James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Delfino and turned the Rockets into an entirely different outfit, morphing a team that finished 11th in pace (91.7 possessions/48 minutes) and 12th in offensive rating (105.5 points/100 possessions) in 2011-12 into one that led the league in pace (96.1) and placed sixth in offense rating (109.7) last season.
"The essence of basketball hasn't changed at all. When the ball gets to the front of the rim, the defense is in full-fledged panic mode."
That marked a dramatic shift in offensive philosophy, a change lost amid the deserved hype surrounding the sudden emergence of Harden.
Those statistics serve as the analytical foundation of any and all discussions centering on Howard and how his proclivity to score at the rim impacts what the Rockets do best. Of course McHale remains adamant that the Rockets will remain what they are even with Howard in the fold, but the fact remains that he has earned the trust of fans regardless of what he diagrams.
"It may look a little different," McHale says. "Last year we had to penetrate the ball in the paint, kick it out and try to get stuff. The essence of basketball hasn't changed at all. When the ball gets to the front of the rim, the defense is in full-fledged panic mode.
"You're either going to lay it in or they're going to collapse on you and you've got to throw it out. So the object offensively is to get pressure on the front of the rim whether that's rolling bigs, whether that's swinging the ball inside or whether that's dribble penetration.
"As I've often said, your personnel drives a lot of how you play. Believe me: If Hakeem Olajuwon was playing last year we may have had a hair less dribble penetration, and the ball would have got in differently."
Humorous hyperbole aside, switching out Omer Asik for Howard makes a world of difference in terms of the Rockets' capabilities regarding traditional post scoring. While Howard is no Olajuwon on the block, he did lead all centers in points per game on post ups and with 417 baskets inside of five feet last season. His 65.7 shooting percentage ranked third among centers with 250-plus field goals. Conversely, Asik had the lowest field goal percentage (56.5 percent) among centers with 250-plus field goals inside of five feet.
He was one of only two centers with 250-plus field goals to shoot under 60 percent inside of five feet, the other being the Detroit Pistons Greg Monroe, a masquerading power forward who nonetheless totaled 412 field goals inside five feet.
Appropriately, the Rockets finished last in the league in post-up plays (four percent) and points-per-game on post ups (3.5). Howard, despite being vilified for failing to sufficiently expand his offensive repertoire after nine seasons in the league, offers the Rockets such a dramatic upgrade in the paint that even relying on his supposedly rudimentary skill set should yield multiple opportunities.
Asik had the lowest field goal percentage (56.5 percent) among centers with 250-plus field goals inside of five feet.
And, as McHale noted, Howard is an exceptional offensive rebounder — he ranks fifth among active players with a career 11.89 percent offensive rebound rate. For those instances when defenses collapse and force a pass out of the post, Howard ranked seventh among centers who averaged at least 30 minutes per game with a 6.8 percent assist rate.
Over his last four seasons with the Orlando Magic, starting with their unexpected run to the 2009 NBA Finals, Howard posted an 8.0 percent assist rate. When he speaks of maintaining status quo as an offensive player, his hubris is justified.
"I'm going to get mine, but that's not the focus," Howard says. "The focus is just to dominate on both ends of the floor. That's what me and Kevin have been talking about since Day 1."
James Harden Rebooted?
The addition of Howard will impact Harden more than anyone else on the roster. Last season, emancipated from his role in Oklahoma City as the third wheel behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Harden took the NBA by storm ranking in the Top 10 in minutes played (sixth, 2,985), 3-point field goals (sixth, 179), free throws (second, 674), points (fourth, 2,023) and win shares (fourth, 12.8) while finishing 11th in field goals (585) and player efficiency rating (23.0).
McHale has proven flexible and Harden has shown to be unselfish.
Harden, in his third season overall and his first as a starter, made the audacious leap from 2012 Sixth Man of the Year to Third-Team All-NBA, cementing his status as the third-best shooting guard in the league behind Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Laker) and Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat).
At the part of his dramatic foray into volume scoring, Harden finished sixth among all guards in usage rate last season. It's difficult to conceive of a scenario where Harden can maintain such ball dominance with Howard and his career 23.4 percent usage rate on the court, particularly given the presence of point guard Jeremy Lin (20.8 percent usage rate in 2012-13) and the continued ascension of underrated small forward Chandler Parsons, unequivocally the tertiary option offensively.
Harden will undoubtedly experience a down tick in production working alongside Howard, but asking him to share the load isn't a preposterous request given his underrated skills as a facilitator on offense.
In the midst of setting the league aflame with his scoring versatility, Harden proved an able and willing passer. His 25.7 percent assist rate ranked third among starting shooting guards last season, bested only by Bryant (28.6 percent) and Monta Ellis' 26.2 percent rate with the Milwaukee Bucks. Harden is by no means selfish, thus the challenge is determining how he will involve Howard, not if.
"Dwight is going to help me out a lot just by being under the basket and having an outlet to pass it to,"Harden says. "Whenever a big steps up (on dribble penetration) it's an easy dump-off pass. He's going to help me and the rest of the guys who like to drive and be aggressive to the rim.
"There were a lot of times where we needed to get the ball into the post as a release, and we didn't really have that last year. Dwight is going to get his touches, he's going to get his opportunities to make plays or make passes as well. That's why I think he fits in well with us. It's going to be a brand of basketball that is easier for everybody to score.
"It's an opportunity for everybody to make a play for each other."
Even during his fractured, injury-plagued season with the Lakers last year, Howard remained a beast in the pick-and-roll. The Rockets did just fine in that regard with Asik as the roll man despite his penchant for bringing two left hands to the arena on game nights. Thus, while curiosity over integrating Howard is certainly justified, being concerned over those prospects isn't.
McHale has proven flexible and Harden has shown to be unselfish. All that remains to make this plan work is for Howard to take the steps necessary to complement the skills of his head coach and the player he said holds the potential to be "the best" two-guard in the NBA. Beyond anyone else, Howard has a legacy to cultivate, and his willingness to concede is central to that legacy.
"We all have to sacrifice something in order to be a championship team," Howard says "Whether that's minutes, points, whatever it may be, we have to sacrifice something.
"I think everybody is on board with that."