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An NBA Nightmare: The James Harden-Dwight Howard Pick-and-Roll

Houston Rockets

An NBA Nightmare: The James Harden-Dwight Howard Pick-and-Roll

Carl Fudge of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference takes a closer look at the effectiveness of both James Harden and Dwight Howard in the pick-and-roll and why that combo might become the NBA’s most lethal pairing.

James Harden Dwight Howard pick-and-roll

In 2012-2013, the Houston Rockets emerged as one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, utilizing an uptempo style and a steady diet of pick-and-rolls, isolations and three-pointers to fuel their rise to a #3 ranking in points per shot (bested only by Oklahoma City and Miami).

One of the biggest drivers of Houston’s success was the pick-and-roll. While the Rockets were quite good at it last year, they should be scary good at it next year with the insertion of a certain #12 into the lineup.

If basketball fans can recognize one offensive play, it’s the pick-and-roll – a two man play involving a ball handler and a screener setting a pick for that ball handler. Teams run this play with such frequency that the NBA is often referred to as a “pick-and-roll league” and the Rockets in particular have become known as one of the better teams at executing it.

Houston’s Pick-and-Roll

The Rockets went to the pick-and-roll nearly 1 out of every 4 times they were in a half court offense last season. Just how good was the Rockets’ pick-and-roll? The short answer is it was very good. In fact, the Rockets were the 3rd best team in the league, generating 0.92 points every time they ran it (only the Knicks and Heat were better).

The long answer requires thinking of the play in terms of two outcomes: the ball handler coming off the pick and taking the shot himself, or the ball handler passing to the rolling screener and letting him finish the play instead. If the ball handler took the shot, the Rockets were the best team in the NBA, but on the roll part of the play they ranked only 10th.

Harden’s Bread And Butter

By far the biggest driver of pick-and-roll success for the Rockets was star shooting guard James Harden. In fact, out of the 1,700 or so times the Rockets ran the play last year, Harden ended up deciding the outcome over 500 times. He averaged exactly one point per possession in these situations, the 5th best mark in the entire NBA, justifying his reputation as one of the very best pick-and-roll players in the league (even putting him above Chris Paul, who was #6).

As a true triple threat, Harden is an ideal pick-and-roll player and the coaching staff rightly trusts him to make a quality decision as to whether to shoot, pass or drive off the pick. Most often last year, Harden would look to score. He’s capable of sinking both the three-point and mid range jumper at a decent clip as well as using the screen to set up his Euro-steppy drives to the bucket that often result in a layup or free throws.

As noted in this informative analysis by Bballbreakdown, the outcome of Harden’s pick-and-rolls were most often dependent on where he was on the court; start on the left and he would like to drive all the way to the basket, start on the right wing and he would often step back into his three-point “J”, the spot where he was most comfortable and successful.

As good as it was, if there was one criticism of the Rockets’ offense last year it was that it lacked sophistication and became predictable. One memorable thread on Clutchfans even referred to it as a “gimmick offense” due to the reliance on cheap fast break points in addition to a limited offensive playbook.

I don’t totally agree with that characterization as I believe that the Rockets played to their strengths and ran the offense that gave them the best chance of winning given the talent on the roster. It is fair to say though that if the Rockets emerge as one of the better teams in the West, they will need to generate more variety out of their offense to stay competitive against highly motivated and prepared defenses.

Part of the reason for the Rockets’ predictability (and why they were only the 10th best team at scoring off the roll), was that as a roll man, Omer Asik was limited. While he could certainly set a mean screen, he was not as comfortable with the ball and ranked as only the 55th best pick-and-roll finisher, putting him among some of the worst front court starters in the NBA.

While Asik was not horrible and did get better over time – he still shot close to 60% – he lacks the footwork, hands and overall coordination to perform at an elite level in this part of the game. There is much to love about his skillset, but catching the ball on the run while avoiding the charge or travel and then finishing at the hoop is not a particular strength of his.

Enter Dwight Howard

With a unique combination of power, coordination and timing, Howard has consistently ranked among the best players in the league at finishing the pick-and-roll. In his “down year” last season, Howard was the 9th best roll man in the NBA, but in 2011-12 he was 2nd best and in 2010-11 he was #1. Last year Dwight averaged 1.29 points per pick-and-roll (30% better than Asik) on 79.6% FG%. To put this in perspective, this is significantly higher than the points per possession he scored on the post-ups he is said to favor (0.74) and even more points than he scored in transition (1.22).

Other than the rare occasions when Dwight got a wide open dunk, the pick-and-roll was his highest percentage scoring opportunity. If he doesn’t realize this now, I’m sure GM Daryl Morey and his team of number crunchers will have hammered it home soon.

Howard is so dangerous off the pick-and-roll because of his explosiveness and ability to score in so many different ways, as our highlight reel here shows:

Perhaps Howard’s favorite way to score is off the lob. As a 6’11” athlete with a 40” vertical jump, Dwight can go up two and a half feet above the rim to catch and dunk balls that few other players can even touch. While the Clippers have owned the term “Lob City” in recent seasons, there will be plenty of alley-oops in Clutch City too.

Dwight is also very skilled at catching the ball on the run, collecting the pocket pass and getting to the rim without traveling or charging – a skill that few big men can display as easily. Another pick-and-roll option he likes is to exploit the defensive misalignment and find deep position in the post, receiving the ball while sealing off his man and turning over one of his shoulders to put up the baby hook.

The other good news for Houston fans is that with Dwight as the screener, Harden should have even more space to operate, as opposing defenses focus on not giving up easy points to Howard. If opponents choose to double-team, there will be plenty of open three-point shots available on the perimeter for the likes of Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Reggie Williams.

The early results are already good. Jeremy Lin spoke with Jason Friedman of about Howard after playing with him at an unofficial Rocket mini-camp in Los Angeles this week.

“He’s just an athletic freak,” said Lin. “Certain sets with him rolling down the paint toward the basket and using his athleticism, it’s going to be really good for us. I think we can be really creative with the ways that we use him. He’s just an animal when it comes to everything near the rim – he’s thrown down numerous alley-oops already from James. He forces defenders to take an extra step or two to make sure he doesn’t get the ball just because he’s so explosive and so strong, and that gives us so much room to work. He’s either getting a dunk or someone else is left wide-open.”

While this all sounds fantastic in theory, Dwight’s willingness to run the pick-and-roll was called into question last week by Steve Nash, who claimed in an ESPN radio interview that it “didn’t seem like (Dwight) really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense” while with the Lakers. Fortunately, Dwight seemed to dispel that notion in his interview with Stephen A. Smith, commenting, “The way [James Harden] plays throughout that pick-and-roll – who’s going to stop that pick-and-roll?”

Good question, because while the Rockets were a dangerous pick-and-roll team with Harden and Asik, they could be downright lethal with Harden and Howard. With elite performers now on both sides of the play, I fully expect Houston to become the leading pick-and-roll team in the entire NBA next year.


Carl Fudge is a second year MBA at MIT Sloan where he is the content lead for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He is a lifelong Rockets fan and has been posting on ClutchFans as GBRocket since 2003.

Carl Fudge is a former MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference organizer and long time Rockets fan.

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