Orlando Magic Camp Countdown: Will Dwight Howard Take Control of the Offense?

Orlando Magic training camp opens on September 28th. Orlando Pinstriped Post counts down key questions to consider entering camp and the 2010/11 NBA season.

With Dwight Howard anchoring their defense in the middle, the Orlando Magic don't have many lingering issues on that side of the ball. Barring an injury to Howard, Orlando should rank near the top of the league in most defensive metrics yet again. But after uneven offensive seasons from Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, and Jameer Nelson--a season in which Howard led the league in field-goal shooting at 61.2 percent yet saw his usage rate drop to its lowest level in three seasons--the Magic's offense is less than a sure bet to appear near the top. The spotlight has shifted to Howard this offseason, as he faces calls to refine his offensive game, which he's worked on with Hakeem Olajuwon and, interestingly, another Hall-of-Fame player who wishes to keep his name private. And though, as I've written before, the media have vastly overstated his offensive shortcomings, it's true that he needs to become the focal point of Orlando's attack, a true two-way cornerstone. Can he accomplish that task, silence his critics, and lead the Magic on offense?

The end of last season offered a nice preview of what the Magic can do when they count on Howard offensively. As I noted in my write-up on True Shooting Percentage, only Vince Carter used more shooting possessions than Howard did on last year's team. But in the final 41 games of the regular season, the Magic were inarguably the league's best team, with a 33-8 record and an utterly bananas average point differential of plus-10.5. In that stretch, they scored 116.2 points per 100 possessions. And they did it by featuring Howard, not Carter, on offense. Take a look at some of these stats for those two players during Orlando's dominant half-season:

Player Points/
Gm
Shooting
Poss./
Gm
FG% eFG% TS%
Vince
Carter
16.4 14.1 46.9% 53.6% 58.1%
Dwight
Howard
19.7 15.5 61.7% 61.7% 63.3%

Indeed, Carter rightly took a step back as he became more accustomed to the Magic's spread offense, and while his shot selection still wasn't excellent, you can't really argue with the efficiency: only six swingmen who made 40 appearances and averaged 30 minutes per game posted a higher True Shooting mark over the entire season than Carter did during his final 41 games. The point here is that Carter proved he can be a solid number-two scoring option within the confines of Orlando's offense.

The number-one here is, obviously, Howard. It's not a role with which he's unfamiliar, having led the Magic in usage in 2008/09 and ranking six-tenths of a point behind Hedo Turkoglu in 2007/08, and I believe this season, he needs to assume the heaviest offensive workload of his career. That means the guards need to find him on the roll more often, but also that the Magic need to establish him in the low post more intently. It'd take pressure off the likes of Carter, Lewis, and Nelson to produce, for one. And, in broad terms, a decrease in usage tends to lead to an increase in efficiency, meaning more potency from those three players.

And yes, the opposite of that statement also holds true; giving Howard more touches will indeed mean his efficiency takes a hit. Fortunately, the Magic can afford it. As I said, Howard led the league in field-goal shooting last year. Shaving even three points off his percentage--making him a 58.2 percent shooter instead of a 61.2 percent one--would still place him in the top five.

Put most bluntly, Howard needs to become as dominant on offense as he is on defense.

A few months ago, in doing research for a post I never got around to writing, I found that Howard's play-type splits--that is, the Synergy Sports Technology-generated breakdown of his touches and effectiveness--last season were not dissimilar to those of a recent starting big man on a championship team. That player is Shaquille O'Neal of the 2005/06 Miami Heat.

Player Play Type %Time Points Per Possession Rating
(Percentile)
%Score
Dwight
Howard
Post-Up 60.9% 0.906 Good
(64)
49.0%
Shaquille
O'Neal
64.0% 0.862 Good
(57)
45.2%
Dwight
Howard
Putback 14.0% 1.282 Excellent
(84)
68.9%
Shaquille
O'Neal
12.3% 1.417 Excellent
(95)
74.1%
Dwight
Howard
Cut 7.4% 1.491 Excellent
(91)
79.6%
Shaquille
O'Neal
11.2% 1.630 Excellent
(97)
83.5%

The takeaway here is that, with enough chances, Howard can prove just as effective as Old Shaq was. A complete comparison between the two players' respective seasons is available at basketball-reference.com.

It's fair to wonder if Orlando's offense, as presently constructed, would suffer with Howard eating so many possessions. Part of what makes the Magic hard to guard is the fact that they start four truly lethal scorers, with the fifth player being a low-usage guy who can feast on the open looks the attention paid to the other starters affords him. I get that. But with the floor spread and Howard going to work down low? That's a sight I could grow used to seeing.

Again, Howard is already a solid low-post player, if not always a joy to watch. Even if he never develops a "signature move," or whatever, that jump hook from the left block is a fairly reliable option so long as he remembers to go up straight rather than fading. There aren't many defenders who can keep up with him when he drives baseline, nor many schemes that can contain him without yielding open looks to his teammates. I also believe the most important addition to his arsenal would be a series of fakes and hesitation moves to make his attempts more difficult to time. While turnovers are a concern, he's a better passer than their totals would indicate. Perhaps this skill is entirely too esoteric to be useful in evaluating a player, but I don't think there's a more effective off-the-dribble passer, at Howard's position, in the entire league. His ability to make an on-target, one-handed pass to the weak side as he comes across the lane is too often overlooked, and is particularly key in Orlando's offense, which often stations a knockdown shooter on the weakside wing just to be there in case opponents send a delayed double at Howard from that direction.

I've gone rather far afield here, I understand. But with Carter really embracing a secondary role--which doesn't mean becoming passive or reluctant, but rather merely playing the same probing, pick-and-role style with more discipline--and with Howard asserting himself down low, the Magic would simply be too much to handle. Howard showed flashes last season of becoming elite even against skilled defenders in single-coverage; I'll direct you toward a few boxscores here to illustrate my point. His work with Olajuwon and Mystery Hall-of-Famer X could make him even more consistent, or at least more confident, in that regard this season. But there's a fine line between "asserting oneself" and "forcing the issue," one which Howard must be careful not to cross.

Orlando was an elite offensive team last season, particularly in the second half, so maybe there's no sense in toying with a good thing. But I also don't see the harm in playing more inside-out ball to see if Howard can handle it and if Carteer, Lewis, and Nelson can't become markedly more efficient as a result. Perhaps this improvement would be enough to vault the Magic past the L.A. Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and any other surprise, top-flight teams in the season ahead.

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