Will the Charlotte Hornets Be Treated to a Dwight Howard Renaissance?
Seventeen minutes is all Dwight Howard could conjure during fourth quarters of a six-game postseason series against the Washington Wizards this spring. Seventy-two minutes possible, 17 played. Two games saw him not even make a final-period appearance for the Atlanta Hawks during their first-round exit, so it comes as little surprise that the organization wanted to move its expensive big man this summer.
Howard has experienced a fairly precipitous fall over the last several seasons. Whether due to injuries, age or a changing style of play across the league, he hasn’t averaged 20 points since his Orlando Magic days, and the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is no longer mentioned in the upper echelon of rim-protecting centers. A former MVP candidate and megastar the Los Angeles Lakers acquired a half-decade ago, he’s now being dumped before the NBA draft for cap space and Marco Belinelli.
Casting off Howard as a hopeless, washed-up center overlooks his persisting abilities to contribute. Last season, the artist formerly known as Superman snatched the most offensive rebounds per 36 minutes of his career, shot a career high from the field and still produced more win shares (8.3) than Blake Griffin (7.7), Paul George (7.1) and teammate Paul Millsap (6.4). The fit between team and player was one that never made sense, and Atlanta’s drastic change in styles to being a pick-and-roll-centric offense irked Mike Budenholzer and the ball movement-constructed roster throughout the season.
It’s been years since Howard was fully healthy and in a situation where he was a franchise’s centerpiece. The Charlotte Hornets, who acquired him back in June, give the embattled big man his best chance to reclaim that status. Playing time, necessity of rim protection and a reunion with former Orlando Magic assistant coach Steve Clifford are all encouraging signs that we may be in for a Dwight Howard renaissance period.
Rim-protection statistics haven’t been kind to Howard over the last few seasons, and the advanced stats community has moved on from him as a top stopper and onto such youngsters as Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. But the story may not be quite as simple as Howard regressing as the backbone of a defense.
The difficulty with rim-protection statistics is that they do not incorporate deterrence. Numbers only show the effectiveness for a player like Howard in defending shots that come near the cylinder. Yet his presence and reputation may discourage players from even attempting a shot near the hoop, and that won’t show up in a box score or any available player-tracking data.
The splits from his defensive numbers last season back this up. In the 74 contests he played, opponents only took 3.6 attempts per game within six feet of the basket against Howard, per NBA.com stats. Only 35 percent of the shots he defended took place within that six foot radius. For comparison, here are the numbers for other top rim protectors in the NBA:
How do we consider Howard a lesser defender in comparison to these players when we cannot properly quantify the fear that he instills upon driving opponents?
Yet the inverse may also be true: Coaches design schemes around their strongest players and seek to cover their weakest. The reason players like Gobert and Whiteside face so many attempts within six feet each game is because their team’s defensive structure can be more aggressive on the perimeter and funnel the ball towards them, knowing a great rim-protector lies in wait. So it very well could be that Howard isn’t deterring shots out of fear, but due to a packed-in style by the guards that dares mid-range and three-point attempts.
All we have to go on is Howard’s actual effectiveness in these situations, and he hovered around league average for starting big men in this metric. The chart below illustrates the defensive field-goal percentage of each big man defending shots closer than six feet to the basket and the number of attempts they face per game in such situations. Howard faces the fewest:
The best rim-protectors, led by Gobert, will find themselves in the bottom-right corner of the graph, facing a high volume of shots and allowing a low percentage of those to go in. The worst are in the top right, whiffing on that large volume. Howard is the anomaly being so far to the left of the graph despite playing nearly 30 minutes per game, and there’s no knowing if we attribute this to his reputation or Atlanta going out of its way to safeguard the big man.
Steve Clifford has a reputation for being an elite defensive coach, one who will not sacrifice strong play on that end of the court in exchange for offense. He and Howard had seven seasons together in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and they developed a bond and mutual appreciation for each other that provides confidence for a turnaround. Charlotte’s playing style and roster construction might further reinforce this confidence. As Howard said at his Hornets introductory presser, per the Associated Press (via USA Today):
A lot of people have written me off, which is great because it’s going to make me work even harder. I’m just looking forward to this opportunity because I have a lot left in the tank. I think I’m a lot healthier than I have been in the past five years and I think this is going to be my best time. I’m a lot wiser now, stronger mentally and physically, and I’m in the right place with a great coach, a great GM… so I think this is the perfect opportunity.
Clifford came to the Orlando Magic in time for the 2007-08 season, swapping from one Van Gundy (Jeff, in Houston) to the other (Stan). Both Orlando and Howard took off immediately, winning 52 games and getting D-12 new highs in points, rebounds and blocks. The next six years saw Howard, joined each day by the current Hornets head coach, put up averages of 20.0 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. Orlando had four straight years in the top 10 for defensive rating, as well as playoff appearances for each of the six years this coach-superstar tandem was together.
Charlotte, meanwhile, was a very league-average team last year.
It was the first season of Clifford’s head-coaching career in which he didn’t deploy a top-10 defense. It was also the first year, with the absence of post-centric trees like Al Jefferson or Bismack Biyombo, in which he didn’t have the ability to play a big man who roams around the basket and drops back on PnR coverages. Jefferson is no top-notch rim protector by any means, and Clifford was able to construct an elite defense around him. Howard within that same scheme could be incredibly dangerous in the East.
Charlotte has some very good perimeter defenders as well: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams. Hell, even Kemba Walker isn’t terrible against the right matchups. To utilize the length and switching abilities the Hornets have at the 2 through 4, they must have rim protection from behind. But without that interior presence, switching and over-extending on the perimeter can lead to wide-open slips with no stopgap laying in wait. Even simple switches out of emergency saw guards drive right down the throats of the Hornets bigs and win:
Frank Kaminsky cannot get bullied like this. If the Hornets are to be forceful with their perimeter defense, they must have a blanket of coverage in the shadows. Kaminsky switches out of necessity, and you can see MKG fight to get back to his man while Williams and Briante Weber do a great job rotating and protecting the weak side. But a center getting shoved out of the way like this? The back line for the Hornets was so porous.
Clifford has been trying to construct a roster that can thrive in a switching scheme.
“The advantage of switching is two things, and you saw it in the (2016 NBA) Finals,” he said at the start of last season, per the Charlotte Observer‘s Rick Bonnell. “One it slows down ball movement because, in the pick-and-roll, you don’t have to take the roll man – you can stay home. And, second, it helps your three-point defense. The switching takes care of all that.”
The biggest remedy for Charlotte was addressing that rim protection from behind. Even the often unused Roy Hibbert found some utility thanks to this scheme last season; his Hornets teammates understood the value he had as their anchor.
“We’re quick enough and physical enough (to switch)”, Williams said, per Bonnell. “And, if worse comes to worst, Roy (Hibbert) is back there at the basket. Having a safety blanket like that, it really changes everything.”
Eventually, injuries and Hibbert’s departure hindered the Hornets’ season, but their defensive activity did not change. They remained in the top 10 of defensive efficiency until Christmas, and their aggressive swarm-the-ball mentality threw opponents off consistently. That aggressiveness is where they thrive: it’s where the length of Batum and Williams can bother, where the hyperactive Kidd-Gilchrist leaves his imprint and where Walker can use his quickness to offset his lack of size.
The Hornets also gave up the most three-pointers per game, since they frequently collapsed and rotated on ball movement. It may be by design, but those numbers were also inflated by Cody Zeller’s presence with the first unit. Zeller isn’t a poor center by every measure; he sets fantastic screens and makes good plays out of the pick-and-roll on offense, and his lateral quickness helped the Hornets with defensive rotations. Yet he is an atrocious defensive rebounder; he finished the season with a 17.3 percent defensive rebounding rate. Steven Adams and both Lopez Twins were the only starting centers with a lower number, per Basketball-Reference.
While Zeller had a surprisingly low individual rate (and one higher than teammates Hibbert, Kaminsky and Miles Plumlee), Charlotte was actually a top-five defensive rebounding group. How can that be? Well, the wings emphasized crashing the glass over contesting outside shots. That translated to more threes given up. The goal is to, ultimately, become a bit more stringent on those shots and force more contested long twos, chasing shooters off the line while a rim-protector blocks the path to finish at the hoop and snatches up any miss.
With a deterrent and dominant rebounder like Howard, Charlotte’s defense will be able to extend just a little more off the ball and use that swarm mentality without worry of what goes on behind it. The big man has found a home where his defensive value is absolutely maximized, and his former coach will get the very best out of him.
Offensively, Howard is no longer a back-to-the-basket threat or unguardable roller out of ball screens, and that’s more than okay. If he continues to wipe the offensive glass clean at as high a rate as he did in Atlanta, he’ll already be an improvement on the Hornets’ attack. His 15 percent offensive rebounding rate was a career high; last year’s Fightin’ MJ’s were in the bottom-five in the NBA in the same category, per NBA.com stats.
Howard posted outrageously efficient numbers last year for a player widely considered on the decline. A career high in two-point field-goal percentage (63.5 percent) put him in the top 10 in the league among all qualifying players. Only one player higher on that list—the Houston Rockets’ Clint Capela—took more shots per game than D-12. His usage may be dipping, and his effectiveness in the post waning, but Howard is finding ways to remain efficient, effective and somehow underrated.
Clifford’s offense, and his reputation for cultivating big men through a revitalization in the past, favors post-ups and playing inside-out. Utilizing Howard as a screener for Cardiac Kemba? Makes sense in theory. Putting him in the post against an undersized, mobile center? That works, too.
The Hornets may still have spacing issues on offense to battle through and a weak bench, but watch out. We are on the verge of seeing Howard come back in a big way—and that might manifest itself in a top-five defensive unit.
Follow Adam on Twitter @Spinella14.