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Why Do the Orlando Magic Struggle When Dwight Howard Scores Big?

(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The Orlando Magic's 103-93 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game One of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series continued a disturbing trend of Magic losses when Dwight Howard, their star center, has a brilliant offensive night. Howard scored a career playoff-high 46 points on 16-of-23 shooting, but his teammates combined for 47 points while shooting 18-of-52 from the floor. Take out Jameer Nelson's output (27 points, 10-of-18 shooting) and Orlando's seven other players had 20 points on 8-of-34 from the floor.

Perhaps this game is simply an extreme example. Few teams with as much one-through-eight offensive talent as Orlando will struggle so mightily at that end over a sustained period, especially against a mediocre defensive club like Atlanta's. Then again, it's hard to ignore the fact that, this season, Orlando had some rough goes of it as a whole offensively even when Howard got his points. Counting the Game One loss, the Magic went 2-5 in Howard's top seven individual scoring games this season. What gives?

Below, I've listed Howard's individual offensive stats next to those of his team in the aforesaid games:

Date Opponent Result Howard
16 April Atlanta Hawks L 46 93 103.9
28 January Chicago Bulls L 40 90 99.4
25 February Oklahoma City Thunder W 40 111 126.6
9 December Portland Trail Blazers L 39 83 94.4
13 January Oklahoma City Thunder L 39 124 134.2
23 March 2011 New York Knicks W 33 111 126.6
17 January Boston Celtics L 33 106 122.9

You'll see in the losses to Oklahoma City and Boston, Orlando still scored efficiently apart from Howard and lost anyway, indicating its defense proved to be its undoing on those nights. Orlando's overall offense hummed in the wins against OKC and the New York Knicks as well. So what to make of the three losses when Howard played great offensively, and yet his team posted well below-average efficiency numbers?

According to the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports Technology, Howard posted up 21, 21, and 22 times against Chicago, Atlanta, and Portland, respectively. On average in those games, he used 21.3 of his 34 possessions on post-ups; a typical game for him, throughout the season, involves 13.1 post-ups on 22.3 possessions. So it's clear that, in these games, he a) gets more touches than usual and b) those touches come with his back to the basket. Orlando feeds the beast, in other words, and then gets the heck out of the way.

And perhaps that's the problem. Those teams will let Howard wreak havoc inside if it means being able to stay closer to Orlando's perimeter shooters. Notably, Orlando shot a combined 17-of-65 (26.2 percent) on three-pointers in these three games.

It would appear, then, that Orlando's offense becomes one-dimensional--Howard-dimensional--in these losses in which he piles up the points. Further, if we discount Nelson's 27-point outburst against Atlanta, no Magic player apart from Howard scored more than 11 points in any of those losses.

To be fair, there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma here: did the Magic's offense stink because they kept feeding Howard so much, or were they feeding Howard so much because the offense stank? That's tougher to know without looking at the tape. But what these numbers suggest is Orlando ought to at least vary Howard's involvement. Running straight post-ups for him time and again offensively allows the defense to settle, as Orlando's off-ball movement simply hasn't been there this season.

To my recollection, a typical Magic post-up for Howard goes a bit like this: a wing player, usually on the left side of the floor, throws an entry pass to Howard, who's stationed on the left block. The post-entry passer then cuts through the paint to the weak side, finds a spot beyond the arc, and stands still. The three other players stand in place. This alignment puts no pressure on the defense, which has nothing substantial to react to, no tough decisions to make. It seems like it'd be wise for Orlando to at least send a cutter or to the basket, or run a pin-down on the weak side for a shooter, while Howard operates in the post. Get the would-be help defenders moving, force them to make a choice, find the hole, exploit it.

Longtime readers of this site know I tend to advocate more motion in Orlando's offense, either by involving Howard in more pick-and-rolls or by running some off-ball action to free a wing player as outlined above, whenever the team consistently stagnates. As much as I hate to use that talking point so much, I still believe it to be true. I don't know that Orlando will have much postseason success if it continues to run its offense this way.