Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy's player rotations have come under scrutiny lately as he scrambles to find a suitable lineup to counter the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Kevin Arnovitz touched on the subject yesterday when writing about the Magic's flexibility at several positions possibly hindering them in the Finals, as he has yet to settle on a consistent rotation. Los Angeles presents unique problems for Orlando since, in Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, it boasts three long, true big men who can neutralize Dwight Howard defensively and neutralize just about everyone on the glass. After getting hammered on the boards, 55-41, in Game 1 of the Finals, Van Gundy made the unusual decision to pair Howard and reserve center Marcin Gortat at the same time in Game 2, for 9:41 total. Howard remained the center, as he has for every minute he's ever played since 2005, while Gortat shifted to power forward.
The reason this development matters is because Howard and Gortat are inarguably the Magic's most effective bigs, with no disrespect intended toward Tony Battie or Adonal Foyle. However, due to conventional wisdom, Howard and Gortat rarely play together. To wit, conventional wisdom would seem to indicate that playing Howard and Gortat together would stifle the offense, as neither player has much shooting range, thus clogging the lane for would-be slashers and penetrators. It would also indicate that the improved defense and rebounding that lineup provides would not be sufficient enough to mitigate the challenges it would present to the offense.
For the record, Gortat did not seemed concerned about possibly sharing the floor with Howard when I talked to him about the subject after the Magic's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6. To begin with, he didn't know if Van Gundy would even pair him with Howard because, "we still haven't had our first meeting about L.A.," he said. However, he did believe such a pairing would be a possibility "just in case in the future if we have a problem." When I asked him what difficulties sharing the floor with Howard presented, he said, "you gotta understand his jokes," before adding, "nothing's hard. You just gotta follow his game, understand his game, his mentality [....] he can take all the shots in the game, I'm gonna work on defense." In short, Gortat did not anticipate ever playing as a power forward alongside Howard in the Finals, nor did he anticipate that doing so would cause problems for the team or for him individually.
But back to framing this investigation. I decided to test that conventional wisdom, with the help of Popcorn-Machine and ESPN.com's play-by-play data. I went through the two games Howard and Gortat played together in the regular season, as well as the first two games of the Finals--they indeed shared the court in Game 1, but only for 8:53 of garbage time--to see if the conventional wisdom bore out. Can Howard and Gortat play meaningful minutes together and help the team? Follow the jump to read my conclusions.
Before going anywhere with this, I want to make clear that I did not evaluate the players' individual statistics while on the floor together. To me, it was more important to note how the team performed as a whole with the two bigs in the game. So no, I don't have individual breakdowns for either player here. Team performance is my focus.
With that issue clarified, let us address the offense. Here are the shooting statistics for Magic lineups featuring Howard and Gortat:
Indeed, the offense does not perform as well. Even a gigantic boost in three-point shooting can't mitigate the two-point shooting falling off a darn cliff, with the Magic connecting on a mere 15-of-40 of their two-point attempts in 41:29 of Howard/Gortat "Tall Ball" this season. Without looking at replay of the games, it's hard to confirm empirically, but the statistics appear to bear out the theory that the Magic can't get a clean two-point look with both players in the game, most likely due to the lane being clogged. Now, with Battie in Gortat's place, that dynamic changes, since Battie has a reliable 15-to-18-foot jump shot from either baseline or the top of the key. Gortat's jumper is... a work in progress... as evidenced by his garish airball from the right baseline in Game 2 of the Finals.
As expected, though, the rebounding with Howard and Gortat together improves tremendously. Here are those stats, again accounting for 4 games:
Orlando grabs better than half of its own misses with the big lineup in the game, the importance of which is magnified by their overall poor shooting with the same lineup. Overall rebounding also improves, but there is some bad news, as the Magic struggled on the defensive boards with this unit during the regular season:
I must admit this finding surprised me, since Howard and Gortat are both elite defensive rebounders individually: Howard ranked third in that category during the regular season, corralling 29.5% of opponents' missed shots himself, while Gortat ranked 14th with a figure of 26.3%. Something just doesn't connect on the defensive glass when the two players share the floor, a fact which manifested itself during the last regular-season game in which the Magic used the lineup, March 9th at Detroit. Even with Howard and Gortat on the floor, Orlando could not keep Detroit off its own glass in crunch time, yielding 4 offensive rebounds for 4 points. Not a killer statistic, no, but an offensive board from Antonio McDyess led to a game-tying three-ball from Tayshaun Prince which appeared to swing momentum in Detroit's favor.
Then again, that's just one game. And Orlando will not face the Pistons until next season. How did the Magic's big lineup fare against the Lakers specifically in these Finals?
As you can see, pretty flippin' well. 18:34 is a small sample size with which to work, and I haven't accounted for the Lakers' lineup during these stints on the floor. But it appears that Van Gundy can solve his rebounding woes if he plays Howard and Gortat at the same time. And if Orlando's guards ever wake up and hit shots, the pairing could be truly formidable offensively.
For anyone concerned about the defense, it appears not to be an issue. The Magic are +19 in the 41:29 the two bigs have shared the floor together, or +0.46 points per minute. No one's suggesting the crew play all 48 minutes--which would result, on paper, in a 22-point victory margin--but a few 3-to-5-minute stands here and there could certainly swing a game in Orando's favor. Whether or not it can swing 4 of the next 5 games that way remains to be seen. But if the data in the post illustrate anything, it's that the defense and rebounding a Howard/Gortat pairing provides indeed compensates for the poor offense that results.