When the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Dwight Howard, the thinking behind the move was that the big man would bring the franchise back to heights that they reached a mere two seasons ago, when they stood at the mountaintop and celebrated their 16th NBA championship.
So far, the team has been mediocre as evidenced by their record (6-6), and that is partly because D12 hasn’t been the dominant player of seasons past.
As he recovers from the back injury that forced him to miss a stretch of the regular season and the whole 2012 playoffs, it’s clear that he does not as of yet have the mobility required to be a defensive force as a help defender.
Consequently, he is often a split-second late in his rotations, and even when he does manage to make it in time to protect the rim, he isn’t covering up the basket area like he did in years prior when teams truly struggled to convert at the rim against him due to his explosiveness when challenging shots.
The scary part of it all for the other teams in the association is that the Lakers are playing .500 basketball despite the fact that they haven’t gotten what they’ve expected from Howard from a defensive standpoint. As his body gets into better shape, so will the purple and gold.
Offensively, though, his production has been on par with what most expect, but he’s still a little different. He still gets those thundering finishes at the rim but doesn’t get off the ground as high as he did when Kenny Smith bestowed the Superman moniker upon him.
And yet, Howard is averaging career highs in field-goal attempts at the rim (7.6 per game according to Hoopdata) and field-goal percentage (61.5 percent). It’s peculiar in some sense because he is attempting less field goals on average than the last two seasons, but still manages to score just about the same amount of points given his increased efficiency.
How is this happening, though?
One would be tempted to say he is better than ever on the low block, which is somewhat accurate but fails to paint an adequate picture of reality. Indeed, MySynergySports tells us that last season, 57.5 percent of his field-goal attempts came from post-up situations, where he converted 49.9 percent of his shots. This season, 47.6 percent of his shots have come out of post-ups, and he’s been converting them 53 percent of the time.
Thus, he is getting less opportunities down low, but he is proving to be better at making shots when those chances come his way.
But there’s another factor at play here, and Zach Lowe from Grantland touched on it a few days ago:
"The Lakers' offense has remained pretty efficient overall because Gasol is the rare 7-footer with the versatility to make the awkward setup work. He can hit 18-footers consistently, though he needs space and time to load up. He may be the world's best passing big, though his brother is giving him a run in Memphis. He is unselfish and team-oriented despite a prodigious individual skill set.”
The Lakers own the fifth-best offense in the league, and Lowe essentially told us that Gasol is the one that makes it all work for the parties involved.
Kobe is one of the most gifted scorers the league has ever seen, but Gasol helps him shake loose in the pick-and-roll and also finds ways to subjugate his offense in favor of getting the ball to Bryant in scoring position so that he can do some damage.
The biggest benefactor, though, is Dwight Howard.
The former Magic superstar has essentially been outstanding offensively when paired next to the Spaniard because Pau continues to find ways to feed him directly at the rim.
The eye test says that Dwight looks really good alongside Gasol because the two-time champion can stretch the court a little and also make good post-entry passes as well as feed him over the top of the defense for alley oops.
The stats validate what seems apparent to the naked eye.
According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, in 328 minutes played next to Gasol, Dwight Howard is converting 66.3 percent of his field goals and the Lakers sport a solid plus-minus figure of plus-45.
However, in the 111 minutes that D12 has played with the three-time NBA finalist on the bench, the former Defensive Player of the Year has “only” been hitting 48.6 percent of his shots and the Lakers have been a surprising minus-54.
It’s important to consider the context in this scenario, and the fact that the Lakers’ bench is a rumored existence as opposed to a consistent unit ties into the reason why the purple and gold perform poorly with the Spaniard on the bench.
Nonetheless, one thing definitely seems to be certain: Dwight Howard’s success this season will be heavily dependent on his teammate from Spain until he regains his full strength.
Thus, it will be interesting to see how Mike D’Antoni builds on the chemistry that the Lakers’ twin towers have already developed and whether he can in fact have them play at higher level despite Howard’s current limitations.
You just wait until Steve Nash gets into the mix…
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.