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Last Chance for Dwight Howard & His Fit with Charlotte

NBA.com

* All videos and stats in the piece are via NBA.com/stats *

There are so many aspects of the Dwight Howard fit with the Hornets to ponder and the more the mind wanders, the more excited (and nerve-racking) the prospects of the fit become.

Howard will give Steve Clifford true rim-protection and alter the gravitational pull of opposing defenses like he’s never had during his tenure in the Queen City. Howard’s lone presence on the floor will allow the Hornets to play in ways they’ve never been privy to.

D12 has made it abundantly clear that he’s excited to be back under the tutelage of Steve Clifford and psyched about playing with Kemba Walker.

It was the Kemba Walker show last season, and although the addition of Howard will alter some of that, it won’t be much.

22.9% (2nd in NBA) of the Hornets offense last season was derived from the pick-and-roll ball handler (Kemba) and 7.2% (11th in NBA) of the offense was extracted from the pick-and-roll roll man (Zeller). Kemba will obviously remain the quarterback of the offense, but D12 will add some spice to the way things run, and increase the blood pressure for opposing defenses attempting to negotiate the swath of pick-and-roll actions that Charlotte unleashes.

Continuing the development of the Hornets offense from the pick-and-roll play will fall largely into the lap of D12. If he can rediscover his identity of a dominant pick-and-roll big and buy-in to how Charlotte wants to execute offensively, then this could be a happy ending. If not, Hornets fans have a frustrating few years ahead of them with one of the most controversial on-court players in NBA history.

Inexplicably, D12 only used 10.9% of his possessions per game as the roll-man in pick-and-roll situations last season in Atlanta. In those possessions, he was still one of the most effective scoring bigs in the game, converting 1.18 PPP.

To the contrary, 28% of D12’s offensive possessions per game last season were wasted out of the post-up variety – wasted, because he scored 0.84 PPP in post-up’s – good 21st of the 25 frontcourt players in the NBA to use at least 3 possessions per game via the post-up play.


Critics of the trade (although they’ll admit Charlotte won the deal) will point to the fact that D12 will never stop pounding his head against the wall, believing he can be a dominant isolation post player. Even if he could, that’s basketball from the past. The game is played around the perimeter now and unless D12 can adjust, the end of his career is closing in fast.

This is D12’s last chance to make something positive of his very spotty career, but there’s reason to believe that this is finally the fit he’s been waiting for. Playing for Steve Clifford, a coach who he was close with during his best career seasons in Orlando, and then again in Los Angeles, can extract the most of what is left in D12.

Shepherding D12’s understanding of where his strengths exist will be the most vital task for Steve Clifford during the next two seasons in Charlotte, and the front office is betting that he figures it out.

Offensive Fit

Offensive sets like the one you see below, featuring Marvin Williams as a switch component to pull Aaron Gordon away from help position camped at the rim, will be prevalent with D12 on the floor. This set is designed for a Kemba-Zeller pitch-and-catch – with Howard replacing Zeller in this situation, you will see the weakside defender (Terrence Ross) show much more respect to dropping in and tagging the roll-man. Not only does this require more attention to detail and communication from the defense, but it’s going to create so much more second-side-offense for the Hornets. Imagine Orlando defending this perfectly with D12 in the game, but then have Kemba quickly swing the ball to Batum against a scrambling defense. Alas, the panic-inducing gravitational pull that D12 can unlock.


Kemba has developed his pocket-passing with Zeller and so much of that is due to having to deliver the ball in an area that Zeller can catch, gather and finish. In the video below, you see Kemba throw a perfect pocket bounce pass to a rolling Zeller on the empty side of the floor – the weakside help doesn’t over-commit because they know Zeller isn’t much of a threat to destroy the rim via a simple lob by Kemba – insert D12 into this action and that’s far from the case. Once again, opening up second side options for Charlotte once the help defense has to come over earlier.


Second side action that looks something like this, which has been rare in Charlotte under Clifford’s watch. Jimmy Butler has to dig deep into paint to protect against D12 at the rim, ball is swung by Schroder to opposite corner, and now stuff is happening against a scrambling defense.


Batum + D12

Nic Batum and Dwight Howard should be an interesting pairing as well. Batum is one of the most unselfish passers in the league, which D12 should attract to.

Although Batum isn’t nearly as quick as Kemba coming off of ball-screens, he does have exceptional vision. It would be fun to see Clifford put Batum in the mid-post / elbow area to operate with D12. For one, this puts Batum in a range where he is more effective as a jump shooter, and two, it means D12 doesn’t have to cover as much ground when rolling to the rim. Action like this forces help defenders to sink down into the lane even deeper, sacrificing that extra step of space between themselves and a shooter.


Monk + D12

Malik Monk and D12 will be interesting to see on the floor together. Part of me believes that it will be a solid fit due to Monk’s floor spacing acumen, but D12 has a clear tendency to demand the ball around the block, not throwing it back out when help defense arrives.

Malik was used in action off the ball at Kentucky ad nauseum and I’d expect much of the same in his rookie season with the Hornets. This floppy action featuring Monk and D12 could be a lethal duo. With Monk’s ability to rise and shoot with a quick trigger from anywhere on the floor, help defenders have to be aware. Make D12 the screener in these situations and the Hornets could manufacture some great looks at the basket from simple offensive sets due to the synergy of skill-sets between Monk and D12.

Imagine Monk and D12 replacing Belinelli and Zeller in this weakside floppy action.


Zeller and D12 can play together … Some

Cody Zeller is already an above-average player in short-roll situations. He has the ability to be squirmy enough to get into a scoring spot when the help defender stops his path to the rim and also has some grasp of reading help defense and firing a pass to an open shooter on the weakside of the floor.

How about making that process even simpler from time-to-time? Below, you see the Hawks experimenting with a lineup featuring two bigs, Muscala and D12. Muscala sets the ball-screen and opens to a short-roll, which forces Al Jefferson to slide over – easy read for Delaney right over the top for a D12 flush.

Lineups with D12 and Zeller sharing the floor won’t lead the league in offensive efficiency by any stretch of the imagination, but it gives the Hornets some rebounding muscle (maybe even on the offensive glass) and you could see it working with a trio like Kemba, Monk and Marvin as the supporting cast.


Defensive Fit

This one is more self explanatory. D12 will provide a presence at the rim that Steve Clifford hasn’t had since his last go around coaching Dwight in Orlando and L.A.

It’s well documented that the Hornets need to tweak their strategy at defending the three-point line and trading for D12 was presumably phase-one of the defensive adjustment. Last season, 36.2% of Hornets opponents offense ended in a three-pointer, easily leading the league. To that end, Charlotte’s opponents converted on 36.9% of their three-point attempts, leaving the Hornets with the 5th worst three-point defensive field goal percentage in the NBA. Steve Clifford was forced to roll out an extremely conservative defensive scheme where all four off-ball defenders were dropping deep into the lane due to the lack of personnel – especially when Zeller missed time.

Insert Dwight Howard. Clifford has always liked his bigs to drop back into the paint on pick-and-roll’s and that won’t change with D12. In fact, he should be the perfect big for that scheme and be able to provide a boost in rim-protection from what this team has grown accustomed to. With D12 on the floor, the Hornets will no longer have to drop wing defenders so deep into help, allowing them to stay within arms reach of passing lanes and shooters.

Last season, D12 posted a defensive field-goal percentage of 55.1% within six-feet of the basket. Not an elite number, but certainly respectable, and again, better than what Charlotte has been able to trot out for some time. Cody Zeller finished with a 57.6% DFG% last season.

It’s not like watching the dominant, smooth athlete Dwight once was while swatting every ball that came his way at the rim, but it’s still effective.


And when D12 is engaged defensively, in a stance, and using his wingspan to his advantage, he can even get his hands on balls and make plays like this.


But then there is the bad D12. The one that looks like he couldn’t possibly care less about being on a basketball court and competing.


Don’t forget that D12 is, by all intents and purposes, unplayable against smaller lineups – the kinds of lineups that almost every team in the league can inject in some form or fashion now. Boston has the best version of it in the East.


There are positives and negatives in attempting to fit Dwight Howard into the Hornets defensive scheme. It’s likely that he’ll start games for Charlotte at center and I’m sure that Clifford is going to experiment some with D12 and Zeller on the floor together. He might even elect to start games like this.

Outside of some added rim-protection and general rebounding prowess, it’s hard to envision D12 helping the Hornets turn the proverbial defensive corner. That is, unless he hops into a time portal and becomes the Orlando version of D12, which isn’t happening.

Zeller will finish games for the Hornets, when teams load up their smaller, more versatile, switchier lineups. Everything that Clifford is able to squeeze out of D12 between these fine lines is icing on the cake.

D12 Motor & Effort

Athleticism and skill win the day in the game of basketball the vast majority of the time, but effort is also a large component. This effort thing is not something that has been a consistent trait for D12 over the course of his career – especially during the past few seasons.

The prospect of D12 wearing a Hornets jersey for the next few seasons is exciting for all of the obvious reasons, but why should any of us expect to see a different player than he’s displayed during recent seasons? It’s the scariest aspect of D12’s fit with this team. Charlotte has hung their hat on the little things during the Steve Clifford era: Defensive rebounding, not giving up transition points, limiting turnovers, EFFORT…

Just look at D12’s unwillingness to screen for his teammates in the clip below. Twice, in less than 10 seconds. It’s this kind of stuff that have driven his coaches crazy over the years.


In a vacuum, the acquisition of Dwight Howard was a win for the Hornets. They were able to rid themselves of quite possibly the worst contract in the NBA (Miles Plumlee) and manage to get the best player in the trade. Charlotte was a clear winner in the deal. That said, there’s a reason that Atlanta made this deal – they were that desperate for a culture reset and would do anything to get D12 out of town.

It was worth a roll of the dice for the Hornets, but it still must be viewed as just that. There’s little proof in the pudding that this addition will payoff on the court, but for a GM fighting for his job during the final year of his contract while working for an owner hellbent for the playoffs with a mediocre roster, this is really the only path.

And look, maybe Dwight wakes up and realizes that his career will soon be over if he doesn’t make some changes with his approach on the floor. If he’d like to continue playing this game, then he better. The clock is ticking and Charlotte is his last stop to turn the tide.

Hold your breath. This is going to be something.

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