Looking Back on the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat Together against the Philadelphia 76ers

As we discussed yesterday, two nights ago against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Orlando Magic played centers Marcin Gortat and Dwight Howard together for 6:38. It's a look coach Stan Van Gundy rarely uses because Gortat's range doesn't reach the three-point line, which runs counter to Van Gundy's preferred arrangement of surrounding Howard with four three-point shooters. But with Philadelphia having its way on the glass and in the paint in the early going, Van Gundy went to the Gortat/Howard lineup to plug that leak, so to speak.

So how'd that turn out, on both ends? I checked the tape, noting each offensive and defensive possession the two played together. The results are encouraging for Orlando, though we should take them with a grain of salt, as the sample size is limited and was drawn from a game against an inferior foe. With that said, let's get to it.

Gortat checked into the game for Brandon Bass at the 9:20 mark of the second quarter. Philadelphia power forward Elton Brand had scored Philadelphia's first 10 points in the period while matched up against Brandon Bass, who provided very little resistance to the veteran. Magic television color analyst Matt Guokas noted that Bass let Brand catch the ball in his preferred spots on the floor, which may have contributed to Van Gundy's decision to yank him in Gortat's favor.

Gortat's offensive impact in this game is minimal, and I'm not just saying that because he never attempted a shot, with or without Howard flanking him. He was never even in position to shoot, as Howard became the overwhelming focal point of the offense. Gortat gets most of his looks finishing the pick-and-roll; none are run his way in this game. The lone time he even came out to set a high screen, point guard Jason Williams chose Howard's high screen on the other side of the lane instead. The play results in Williams pulling up for a sweet two-point J.

Excluding transition possessions, and the play mentioned in the previous paragraph, in which the two came to set screens on either side of the top of the key, Howard and Gortat spent their time on opposing baselines. This choice intrigued me because the other "traditional" power forwards in Van Gundy's offense tend to play at the elbow/free-throw line extended (Bass) or the top of the key (Tony Battie). As J.J. Redick or Williams prepares to throw an entry pass to Howard, Gortat scoots further down the baseline to make it more difficult for the man checking him to double-team Howard. And as Howard makes his move toward the basket, Gortat moves back in to establish rebounding position. That's really all he does in the halfcourt offensive possessions he spends of the floor with Howard, which seems like almost a waste, really. I wouldn't say the Magic are playing four-on-five with Howard and Gortat together, because setting screens is an important duty in an offense (note: I am not being facetious here). However, it's clear that Gortat won't get many opportunities to score in this offense.

Due to his lack of participation, and because I'm not entirely convinced his presence drastically altered Orlando's gameplan, I won't enumerate each of Orlando's offensive possessions in this space Howard and Gortat don't play together to provide a one-two offensive punch. Nope, they're there to patrol the paint defensively, which they do here to great effect, which is our focus. So here's how Philadelphia ran its offense with those two on the floor together:

  • Defensive Possession 1

  • How it ends: Willie Green posts up Williams on the left block and misses a jumper over him badly.

    How it got there: There's not much more to it than that. Coming out of a timeout, Green looks to exploit Williams' suspect defense, but nothing comes of it. Howard covers Samuel Dalembert, with Gortat on Brand. But this play is a straight-up isolation, so only Green and Williams figure prominently in it; everyone else's involvement is minimal.

  • Defensive Possession 2

  • How it ends: Green misses a long two-point jumper over Williams.

    How it got there: Green, the point guard in this lineup, brings the ball up and dishes to Brand on the left elbow, free-throw line extended. He gives Gortat a quick look, but doesn't seem too interested in doing anything with him. He hands the ball back to Green, who cut around Brand's left and takes a long jumper with his right foot just over the three-point line. This play seems designed for Green, and not Brand, and coach Eddie Jordan may have called for it during the previous timeout, the same one which yielded the Green/Williams isolation.

  • Defensive Possession 3

  • How it ends: Green drills a two-point jumper.

    How it got there: Green again passes to Brand on the left elbow, but this time, Brand goes to work. In a way, anyway. He briefly sizes up Gortat before shooting a contested jumper over him. It comes up well short, with the ball bouncing in the center of the lane, up for grabs. Gortat loses sight of Brand, who dives to the floor and gets the ball to Rodney Carney on the left wing. Carney swings the ball to Andre Iguodala at the top of the key, and then Iguodala finds Green on the left wing. He has an open three-pointer, but with Gortat charging at him, he gives the head fake and takes a few dribbles in instead. Then he fires the jumper, which rattles in.

    During the next break in play, Jordan takes Brand out and replaces him with Jason Smith. Brand has scored 10 points in the period, and his offensive rebound of his own miss led to the Sixers' only other basket so far. Dalembert also checks into the game here, replacing the offensive-minded Marreese Speights, who hasn't had much to do because Green and Brand have dominated the ball.

  • Defensive Possession 4

  • How it ends: Smith misses a jumper from the right elbow.

    How it got there: Iguodala, now a live participant in the offense, drives to the lane and kicks to Smith at the left elbow. Gortat has that assignment, and his solid contest may have contributed to Smith's missing the shot very, very, short.

  • Defensive Possession 5

  • How it ends: Iguodala turns the ball over.

    How it got there: Igoudala and Smith run a high pick-and-roll, with Iguodala driving to his left. Gortat is all over the play, and swipes the handle away from Iguodala. He recovers the ball himself and passes ahead to Mickael Pietrus, whom Iguodala fouls from behind on a transition layup attempt. He drains both foul shots.

This defensive possession is the last for Howard and Gortat together during their first stint. It's worth noting that Philadelphia didn't get anything going in the paint during this stretch. Were it not for Brand's admirable hustle on that offensive rebound, the 76ers would have gone scoreless; as it is, they only managed 2 points on 5 possessions. Meanwhile, the Magic have scored 9 straight points and now hold a 42-35 lead. Van Gundy has turned the tide.

The pair play another possession apiece on offense and defense later in the period. The defensive possession is nothing special this time, really, with Carney missing badly on a three-point attempt with which Howard and Gortat had little to do. But the offensive possession? Let's look at that one.

  • Offensive Possession 7

  • How it ends: Howard clanks two foul shots

    How it got there: Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter run a side screen-and-roll together. It doesn't yield anything, with Green and Jrue Holiday doing a solid job defensively as Carter can't establish decent post-up position on Green. Nelson dribbles down to the baseline, then comes back out up top as Carter continues to tangle with Green. Nelson picks up his dribble and jab-steps in Holiday's direction to clear space. He launches a three-pointer, which misses pretty badly. Gortat comes in from the left and tips the rebound to Howard on the right block, whom Smith fouls almost immediately. Howard, not Gortat, receives credit for the rebound. After Howard's first miss, Gortat heads to the bench to make way for small forward Matt Barnes.

Howard and Gortat played one last stint together in the fourth quarter, but again the pairing had little bearing on what Orlando did offensively; then again, it might have, were Mickael Pietrus to play smarter. He makes some baffling decisions in this stretch, including a turnover in which he drove from the right corner to under the basket, then threw a pass to the top of the three-point arc to no one in particular; Williams was stationed on the right wing, and Redick on the left, getting ready to tie his shoe. Let's take a look at their last defensive possession, though.

  • Defensive Possesion 12

    How it ends: Brand floats in a lefty hook shot on the move

    How it got there: Iguodala initiates the offense, with the point guard Holiday now playing away from the ball. As he brings the ball upcourt, he drifts from the right side toward the center, and finally winds up at around the left elbow. Gortat is assigned to cover Brand, who's on the right side, but he's come down to help Howard check Dalembert, who briefly had an open lane to the hoop. Iguodala's a great passer at his position, and the long, lean Dalembert makes a great target, so it's important to account for that possibility. Iguodala sees what's up and fires to Brand on the right side, foul-line extended. Gortat's recovered in enough time, but Brand's already made up his mind. He drives left, with his off hand, toward the left block. As he's running, he throws up a hook with his left hand. The shot, which drops, is unconventional and would have been difficult for anyone to challenge.

All told, the 76ers scored 8 points on the 12 defensive possessions Gortat and Howard shared. The only decent look they attempted was the transition dunk which resulted from Pietrus' daffy pass to the top, which Iguodala scooped up and took all the way. Otherwise? Turnovers, contested jumpers, and all-around bad shots. Without that big lineup with which to contend, Philadelphia scored an impressive 85 points on 73 possessions, or 1.16 points per, a figure which would lead the league.

So yes, based on this game, it appears that the Howard and Gortat lineup can slow down an offense that's humming, particularly from the interior. Still, there are some caveats. For one, as I mentioned, a single game is a very small sample size. But second, Jordan didn't appear to have ordered his team to go inside. The first two times they attacked the Howard/Gortat lineup, they did so with Green, an inefficient perimeter player who didn't come through either time. A different coach, or a different team, might have been more aggressive in probing this new frontcourt defense, which I estimate hadn't played more than 25 minutes together the entire season prior to the game in question.

Still, we can't discount the fact that an offense that had managed to chew up the Magic's interior D for the game's first 15 minutes suddenly shifted its focus to the perimeter upon seeing the Howard and Gortat lineup. The sign from this game points toward this lineup potentially being useful in the playoffs. We'll get a better idea about how it works in the final weeks of the regular season, as Van Gundy will probably go with it a few more times. I especially look forward to seeing how the offense does. Two nights ago, Howard was so on-fire with his post-ups that the perimeter players scarcely needed to do anything, and Gortat had very little to do except box out and set the odd screen here and there. But if Howard's offense eluded him, how would this lineup approach the offensive end? That's a big question to watch going forward.

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