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Can the Charlotte Bobcats Successfully Defend Dwight Howard?

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To say that the Orlando Magic's title chances hinge on the play of franchise center Dwight Howard might be a bit obvious. Just about everyone considers him the best defensive player in the league and he throws in 18.3 points per game on a league-leading 61.2% shooting to boot. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy has designed his defensive schemes around Howard, as well as his offensive ones, despite the fact that Howard is 4th on the team in shot attempts per game and 3rd in usage rate. His presence opens up the floor for Orlando's prolific outside shooters. I am not covering any new ground here.

But Howard has, in a sense, and not everyone's caught up to that. Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop has assembled The Many Ways Dwight Howard Can Hurt You, a highlight film which concerns exactly what you expect it'd concern. There's no "right" way to defend Howard, Arnovitz says, but there is at least one strategy that's worth a look every now and again, namely to use "a variety of looks," which "might not stop him, but it might be the best way to upset his rhythm. That's a key point, because Howard is very much a rhythm player. With enough study and practice, a defender can time his moves and counter-moves in such a way that he can block or alter Howard's shot each time. It's easier to do that research than it is to actually match up with him physically, however, which complicates that task.

Arnovitz isn't the only person who's arrived at the "potpourri" strategy. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer consulted an NBA scout for his take on the Magic's upcoming playoff series against the Charlotte Bobcats. Some pertinent excerpts from that piece:

The scout strongly agrees with [Bobcats owner Michael] Jordan that it’s a mistake to constantly leave shooters to double-team Howard. It’s simple math – you’d rather give up two points than three – but it’s also the psychological effect.

I agree with the scout here, in large part due to Charlotte's personnel: DeSagana Diop is the immovable object to Howard's unstoppable force; Tyson Chandler's length can be bothersome provided he's able to stay out of foul trouble, as he picked up 15 fouls in just 51 minutes against the Magic this season; despite his reputation as a poor defender, Nazr Mohammed has the strength and savvy to pester Howard head-to-head; and Theo Ratliff has just enough left in the tank to cover Howard for a few minutes at a time, as he did during last year's Magic/Philadelphia 76ers series. The view here is that, in light of the Bobcats' depth at center, it behooves them not to send too many double-teams Howard's way.

More from Bonnell:

In their one victory in the last 11 meetings, the Bobcats had some success with a delayed double-team strategy; shooting guard Stephen Jackson would wait until Howard was putting the ball on the floor – entering his move – and would then jump at Howard to throw off his timing.

I don't disagree with the idea, but if Jackson's pressure bothered Howard, it didn't much show: he made 12 of his 14 shots of the floor and scored a team-high 27 points.

In any case, I'm more inclined to believe that Howard will score at a decent clip in this series. Vince Carter as well, given that he averaged 22 points on 64.2% True Shooting in the two most recent games against Charlotte; the real question marks surround Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, and the rest of Orlando's host of three-point marksmen. If enough of them are dialed in from beyond the arc, it won't matter what Charlotte throws at Howard. But if they struggle, and if the Bobcats sufficiently vary their coverage of Howard, this series could drag on longer than the five games many experts expect it to go.