Dwight Howard continues to tell us that this team has a championship run in them. They just have to play with a consistent and strong effort, play together and focus on the task at hand. No doubt, Orlando is still searching to reach its full potential this season.
This past week has served as a painful reminder of that -- even within last night's game we saw the inconsistencies of this team. It is hard to look so flawless in wins over Miami and Chicago one week, and then look a little overwhelmed at the end and thoroughly dominated in losses to Miami and Chicago (in back-to-back games). These inconsistencies are nto going to get solved any time soon and likely this team is who it is at this point of the season, even if Dwight Howard wants us all to believe that it will suddenly flip the switch and realize all of its potential.
There are things Orlando can do though to get to that point. It is not such a far-fetched idea that the Magic might suddenly have it all click. There are problems though inherent in the roster that need to be solved.
First, as Rohan Cruyff of HoopSpeak noted, the Magic have to improve what they are getting from some of those players that are struggling. That should increase the gap between the team's offensive and defensive rating and make the team a more viable title contender.
"Surrounding Howard with elite shooters was never as proactive as, say, the Cavaliers' repeated efforts to trade for complementary talents like Amar'e Stoudemire, but in some sense, it never mattered. The issue now is one of player decline and talent misevaluation; the latter precludes remediary steps addressed at the former, and so Orlando's title contention has ground to a halt."
Certainly it seems also that when Howard is not getting the ball and the offense is not run through him that Orlando's offense tends to grind to a half. As Nate Drexler of MagicBasketball.net points out, Orlando simply lacks creators on offense who can get to the line and force defenses to adjust. Dwight Howard literally is the linchpin and the crux that everything turns around.
This, as Drexler points out, makes Howard's free throw shooting all the more important because he accounts for 44.6 percent of Orlando's free throw attempts. Ryan Anderson is second on the team with 11.7 percent of the team's free throw attempts.
It suggests that Howard is the only one really trying to create and break down a defense. The other players on the team are not creating and not making the defense rotate and adjust.
That has put more of the offensive pressure on Howard than ever before. So far he is delivering in averaging 21.1 points per game, a league-best 14.8 rebounds per game, a 24.8 PER and a 26.5 percent usage rate. All those numbers are not career bests for Howard but they rank right up there with his best overall seasons and career highs.
One thing that is different though is that the Magic are probably more dependent on Howard than ever before. And that makes every time he touches the ball all the more important.
Howard said he wants to be the guy who gets the ball, yet he continues to face criticism that he does not demand it enough. He is averaging a career-best 12.9 field goal attempts per game. He add 10.0 free throw attempts per game too. It is safe to assume he is really up near 17 or 18 shot attempts per game. That is about where you would think Howard needs to be, maybe a little more.
There is no doubt that he needs to start converting from the foul line. That will greatly increase his effectiveness for sure. But so too will establishing better post position and working harder to get deeper and repost on the first kickout.
Let's take a look at some video:
The TNT broadcast during Monday's game did a good job highlighting this, and I even want to point it out when Howard has a good game. Dwight Howard often gets pushed off his spot when fighting for post position, forcing him into more difficult shots or post moves with more opportunity for the defense to collapse and help on him.
In the win over the Bulls in Chicago, Howard faced Omer Asik and, much like Monday's game, Asik was able to push him off his spot and far away from the paint.
You can see from the areas I highlighted that Howard is way out of his range when he catches the ball. Asik has him shaded toward Gibson and where his help is. More than that, he does a really good job fighting Howard for every inch on the floor. When Quentin Richardson finally does get the ball to him, he is even further away from the basket to the point where he does not have a foot in the paint.
Fortunately for the Magic, Howard's one-on-one game has improved a bunch. He caught the ball, turned and faced Asik and dribbled toward the open space in the defense before spinning back. Ultimately he took the shot from just outside the paint and barely made it as Asik deflected the ball on his way to the shot. Howard is just that good.
Take a look at it in full speed and watch how good of a job Asik does of standing his ground and fighting Howard the entire way (play occurs at 0:40 in the highlight).
But even on this successful conversion, you can see how much of a struggle it was for Howard to get a good shot when he gets pushed out that far. If you watch the highlights above and recall that game, Howard still gets a lot of his points on screen and rolls, lobs and put backs. That is definitely something Howard should be doing. He gets the points however he can. But, when the game slows down in the Playoffs, he is going to have to do a little more offensively and get better position in the post.
When he does that, it causes the defense to collapse more and makes it harder for them to rotate back to the perimeter. Take a look at this example and watch how the play sets up:
Here, the play is not designed for Howard, but his post position is still vitally important. Howard sets up on the opposite block, and it is important that he is on the block. Of course, the Nets are not trying to push him out of the lane yet.
The play is set up for a 1/4 pick and roll with Jameer Nelson and Ryan Anderson. Nelson has the whole left side of the floor to attack and operate. And, with the floor spread, it leaves a lot of defenders with some difficult choices to make.
Nelson drives into the open space and draws two defenders to him as Dwight's defender leaves him to cut Nelson off. This is where Howard's post position matters. Howard comes across the lane and gets two feet in the paint so he can be an option for Nelson if he gets cut off. Nelson though is able to get to the basket so Howard's move has two purposes.
First, it puts him in position to get an offensive rebound with a guard shifting over from Redick to help out with Howard. Second, it frees up J.J. Redick, who has sneaked into the short corner. Nelson reads the play very well. Howard, with two feet in the paint and in great rebounding position, sets a flare screen on Redick's defender. Nelson delivers a perfect pass to Redick and he drains the three.
Watch it in full (play occurs at 1:30):
Howard's post position is incredibly important for the Magic's spacing as this next play will illustrate.
If you are wondering what Howard's preferred spot on the floor to catch the ball, it is probably at that second hash mark on the lane. Here, Golden State offers little resistance to Howard as he establishes post position with one foot just outside the paint. Hedo Turkoglu delivers a smooth bounce pass to enter the ball into the post. Turkoglu is one of the few players on the team that does this pretty consistently. In Howard's fight for post position, a solid entry pass like the one Turkoglu gives Howard here is critical.
The floor is not particularly spread at this point. But Howard is not going to wait for the double team to come. He turns to face up immediately and quickly attacks his defender. As you can see in the full highlights below (play occurs about 35 seconds in), Howard catches the defense napping a bit and gets his running hook to fall.
You can see in the way this play develops and sets up that Howard can be much more aggressive and effective when he gets his spot. There is no probing or forcing of his offense. He is comfortable and he is strong. This will force the defense to collapse around him and open up the passing lanes to Orlando's array of shooters. To be sure it will be more difficult for Howard to get to his spot and establish that strong post position once the Playoffs begin.
But this is what the Magic need from Howard. Yes, entry passes have to be better and a whole lot of other things have to be good too. But Orlando's offense will start and stop with the work Howard does in establishing post position.
If he gets pushed off his spot, his options become much more limited and the defense does not have to do much doubling as Howard has to take the extra time to force his offense. When he gets the ball where he likes and he can make a quick and dependable post move, it puts a lot more pressure on the defense to react to him. And from there, Howard can make the right decision to either score himself or get the ball to the perimeter.
Howard's improved feel both tin the post and passing out of double teams unlocks the Magic's potential. It is no secret that Howard is the key to the Magic reaching their potential.
That could all happen if Dwight Howard wins those few precious inches in the post and gets into an area he is comfortable in and can be aggressive from. When he gets pushed off that spot, that is when the offense gets really bogged down and the Magic can really struggle as Howard's options become limited.