Dwight Howard's real tall challenge: Is he willing to share the big burden?
The grand experiment had finally taken center stage with Omer Asik and Dwight Howard simultaneously sharing court space and the Houston Rockets taking their first step toward determining the viability of their latest "Twin Towers" iteration. It starts for real against the Charlotte Bobcats in the Rockets' season opener Wednesday night.
But first, all the pained dialogue over positional overlapping and clogged offensive lanes and defensive discomfort succumbed to Asik and Howard playing alongside one another when the most ironic event unfolded seven-plus minutes into a preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks.
Asik missed a two-foot layup while stationed in the left quadrant of the restricted area. Howard, fundamentally positioned on the opposite side of the rim, snagged the offensive rebound and proceeded to miss a three-foot layup. One could only smirk at the sight of two gargantuan men misfiring on two point-blank shots during the same possession, almost as if by design.
Of the four players who averaged 30-plus minutes for the Rockets, Asik produced the best net rating while on the floor.
The tide turned in favor of Asik and Howard in at least one aspect by the close of the Rockets' 100-95 victory. While Asik and Howard combined to score just 19 points on 8-for-19 shooting, and though the Mavericks had little problem scoring in the paint while Asik and Howard occupied the court together in the first quarter, the tandem did combine for a robust total of 26 rebounds — 10 on the offensive end.
The Rockets managed to parlay 16 offensive rebounds into 19 second-chance points and, on a night when their offense was relatively inefficient, those additional opportunities Asik and Howard provided offered the clearest example of why two centers can share the same court in a league that increasingly relies upon smaller lineups.
In San Antonio and in Memphis later in the preseason, the Rockets showcased improved interior defense while still rebounding with abandon. There were hiccups to be sure, and more are certainly in store, but at first blush the pairing of Asik and Howard offered enough revelations to prove that it may ultimately benefit the Rockets despite prevailing notions to the contrary.
With a collection of unproven bigs alongside Asik and Howard, the Rockets are, out of necessity, utilizing a unique personnel grouping that appears counterintuitive to a team strength.
While the small-ball lineup of James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Carlos Delfino and Greg Smith logged just 81 minutes last season, that prolific five-man unit produced a net rating of 11.7 points per 100 possessions, the largest such differential of the Rockets' top five usage-based lineups in 2012-13. But even with Omri Casspi proving a capable replacement for the departed Delfino (Milwaukee Bucks), Rockets brass labored too long and too hard to acquire Howard to not fully maximize his abundant talents.
And, after Asik confirmed his status as a starting center in the league by establishing career highs in counting stats across the board last season, the Rockets face the dilemma of divvying minutes between two centers worthy of heavy usage.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale is staunchly committed to the idea of playing Asik and Howard together despite positional overlap. And while it remains far too easy to describe Asik and Howard as "Twin Towers" and harken to days when McHale played alongside Robert Parish in Boston while Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson logged heavy minutes in unison for the Rockets, neither Asik nor Howard possess the midrange shooting needed to complement the limited range of the other. Howard is the more effective scorer, but his game isn't disparate.
Last season, his first in Houston after two seasons spelling All-Star Joakim Noah with the Chicago Bulls, Asik produced the fifth-most field goal attempts in the restricted area in the NBA. His 529 attempts within five feet of the basket represented 86.2 percent of his entire allotment of shots, signifying a strong bond between Asik and rim proximity. And while the Rockets rarely scripted post attempts — they ranked last in the league in post-up plays — Asik was just skilled enough in the pick-and-roll to average a career-high 10.1 points as a first-year starter.
In his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard attempted 564 shots in the restricted area, second only to Detroit Pistons power forward Greg Monroe. Only Miami Heat All-NBA forward LeBron James (411 field goals) and Monroe (389) made more baskets inside of five feet than Howard (388), whose 68.8 restricted area shooting percentage ranked eighth in the NBA among players who attempted 300-plus shots in the restricted area. While Howard took 30.5 percent of his shots outside the restricted area last season, the foundation of his post-up repertoire are rudimentary short hook shots from the low block.
The notion of either Asik or Howard facing the basket to score the ball efficiently is farfetched at best, outlandish at worst.
There were times against Dallas and the Spurs when Asik and Howard were stationed on opposite sides of the paint attempting to provide the other room to operate and also keep the lane clear for penetrating guards. If they appeared clumsy that was to be expected considering Asik missed the first four games of the preseason with a calf injury. Howard has been repetitious in stating that chemistry requires time to develop, and in this particular instance, the process of creating proper spacing between two players comfortable on the block will be painstaking.
Perhaps the stiffest challenge facing the Asik-Howard coupling will come on the defensive end, where both have cemented reputations for exceptionality serving as rim-protecting anchors.
The Lakers were a completely different team defensively with Howard on the court last season, producing a defensive rating of 101.7 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would have ranked 10th in the NBA. Opponents attempted just 31.7 percent of their shots in the restricted area with Howard, a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, on the court, 5.6 percent fewer than with him on the bench. That disparity is hardly a surprise considering Howard ranks third among active players (behind Marcus Camby, released by the Rockets on Monday, and the Spurs' Tim Duncan) with 2.2 blocks per game, and 22nd all time with a 4.6 block rate percentage.
Asik has a similar track record of defensive might dating back to his days with the Bulls. In 2011-12, the Bulls ranked third in the NBA in defensive rating at 95.3 points per 100 possessions and first in opponents' shooting percentage in the restricted area (54.7 percent). Those numbers declined markedly with Asik in Houston last season, as Chicago allowed 5.1 additional points per 100 possessions and fell to 10th in opponents' shooting percentage in the restricted area (59.6 percent). Their defensive rating regression was the worst in the NBA.
Ideally the Rockets would rotate Howard and Asik at center and feature 44 to 48 minutes of rim protection.
The Bulls' slippage was tied to no longer having Asik to back up Noah, who logged a career-high 2,426 minutes and broke down physically during the stretch run in 2012-13. And while Noah was an impactful rim protector last season, he didn't compare statistically to Asik. With Asik on the floor, opponents shot just 49.8 percent in the restricted area in 2010-11, superior to the 58.0 percent allowed by the Bulls in the restricted area with Noah on the floor last season. In his first season with the Rockets, Asik had a similarly impressive impact defensively.
Of the four players who averaged 30-plus minutes for the Rockets last season, Asik produced the best net rating (plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions) while on the floor. The Rockets' defensive rating with Asik on the court was 101.3 points per 100 possessions; with Asik on the bench, that rating ballooned to 107.0 points per 100 possessions. That's the difference between ranking 10th overall in the league in defensive rating and 27th ahead of only the New Orleans Pelicans (107.6), the Sacramento Kings (108.6), and the Charlotte Bobcats (108.9).
Ideally the Rockets would rotate Howard and Asik at center and feature 44 to 48 minutes of rim protection. But Asik reportedly made clear to Rockets brass his desire to start, and rightfully so, thus this experiment to play both together. Asik and Howard combined for only five blocks (all by Howard) in three games last week, but the Mavericks, Spurs and Grizzlies combined to shoot just 37.8 percent (95-for-251) from the floor while averaging 31.3 points in the paint.
For two celebrated rim protectors that's a stout anchoring performance, even if Howard lost Mavericks range-shooting power forward Dirk Nowitzki on a couple occasions by forgetting to chase Nowitzki all the way to the perimeter and challenge clean looks at the 3-point line.
Additionally positive, the Rockets finished a combined plus-34 on the boards against Dallas, San Antonio and Memphis. Howard recorded double-digit rebounds in all three games and averaged 21.5 rebounds per 36 minutes while Asik totaled 20 rebounds in 65 minutes for an average of 11.1 per 36 minutes. While Asik and Howard will struggle early carving out space offensively and rotations defensively, their board work should not suffer in the presence of the other. Howard enters this season averaging 12.9 rebounds per 36 minutes; Asik grabs 13.1 boards per 36 minutes.
As this experiment unfolds, the safest expectation is for Asik and Howard to maintain their glass dominance, which will be a boon to the Rockets' lethal offense.
With three preseason games starting Asik and Howard on the ledger, the Rockets have made progress with this latest "Twin Towers" misnomer. There was ample evidence presented to contemplate the myriad directions this union could take, to ponder the viability of two bigs making the most of one small space and their impact on the Rockets' championship aspirations.
"They're both diligent, they're both intelligent, they both have really good instincts defensively, so that should work," McHale says. "I'm more concerned defensively; offensively we'll figure it out. It may be jammed up (in the paint) a little bit more but they'll figure it out. If we're jammed up that means we have a chance to get more offensive rebounds.
"More offensive rebounds, more possessions; more possessions, more points. So it can work.
"I'm interested in this, too, to see how it works. It's a little bit different but I played that way with bigs and I've seen it work before. You're not trying something that's never been done before. It's two bigs playing together.
"There's such a blend and such a chemistry . . . You're hoping you get that vibe and feel that it's right and that it's not forced and it's not just a struggle."