Dwight Howard, Stan Van Gundy, and the Issue of Touches

After the Orlando Magic's loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night, in which they blew a 14-point lead in the final period, Magic center Dwight Howard question coach Stan Van Gundy's decisions. Howard was upset with the lack of touches he received--click here for Orlando Magic Daily's breakdown of his touches--but also with Van Gundy's substitution patterns. Jonathan Abrams of the New York Times concluded his write-up of Howard's post-game statements thusly:

The message was loud. On Thursday Howard will find out if it was clearly heard.

Oh, it was heard alright. The fact that Howard and Van Gundy discussed the issue privately yesterday, and are now on the same page, is largely irrelevant. The blogosphere was already ablaze with various takes on the story, some of which my colleague linked in yesterday's The Morning After post. Most interesting to me is Mike Bianchi's belief that Howard has jeopardized Van Gundy's job, and Bethlehem Shoals' "guess" that the Magic will fire Van Gundy this summer. As recently as February, nobody could have fathomed that the Magic and their coach would be in this position.

In this post, I wish to examine the validity of Howard's first complaint. Did he get the ball enough late in the game? How can the Magic use him better? Follow the jump to read the rest of the story.

John Hollinger of ESPN.com defended Van Gundy in yesterday's PER Diem post, writing that Howard has yet to prove he can score consistently in the paint against Kendrick Perkins. My own observation of the series, as well as some independent research, gives me reason to side with Hollinger.

Initially, I was tempted to say that "most" of Howard's offense in this series has come as a direct result of his own offensive rebound, be it a tip-in or a shot immediately after retrieving the ball. The word "most" overstates reality, but my research at least showed that Howard is much more efficient in such situations. Take a look:

Situation FG FGA FG% FT FTA FT% TO Pts
After ORebs 7 8 87.5% 5 5 100.0% 0 19
Otherwise 24 49 48.9% 13 27 48.1% 14 61

What these data tell us is this: unless Howard is getting the ball off a Magic miss, chances are he is going to make something bad happen, be it a missed shot or a turnover. Granted, one need not have the ball in order to commit a turnover (a three-second violation, for instance), but the point stands: in a halfcourt set, Howard has been woefully inefficient. Throwing Howard the ball in the post on a night when he shot 3-of-8 with 4 turnovers in non-offensive-rebound situations is just not a good idea. Van Gundy was right to run plays for Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu instead.

Don't get me wrong, though: the Magic need to coax some offense from Howard, and perhaps this is where some criticism of Van Gundy is justified. Clearly Howard isn't going to score against a Celtics defense that has a chance to set itself. My colleague and I have beaten this drum for a while, and you're as sick of reading it as we are of saying it, but I'll repeat it anyway: involve the man in pick-and-roll situations. Orlando's disinclination to find Howard on his rolls to the basket is maddening. It's not as though it doesn't know how: Howard hung 24 points against the Celtics on March 25th thanks in large part his teammates' willingness to thread the needle to him on the roll, or otherwise lob it to him over the top of the defense for a dunk.

If it helps Turkoglu, Rafer Alston, Anthony Johnson, and the rest of the Magic to think of Howard as Marcin Gortat, his backup, that's fine with me. Gortat is 10-of-11 from the field in this series. 2 of his field goals are the direct result of offensive rebounds; his other 8 field goals were assisted. In other words, the Magic need to stop relying on Howard to create his own offense, at least against the Celtics. It's not working.

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