A Thorough Examination of Dwight Howard’s Defense Against the Heat

Dwight Howard was the credited defender on an actionable play (FGA, FT or TO) four times last night, per the video tracking service mySynergySports.

Heat players went 1-for-4 from the field on those plays. So, if we take only the plays credited directly to Howard, the Heat scored 0.25 points per play.That’s excellent. It’s better than excellent.

Well… I didn’t feel that was an accurate representation of Howard’s defense last night, so I dug into the video, watched every Heat play with Howard on the floor and looked for plays where Howard was actively involved. I graded him (totally subjectively) on a -2 to +2 scale, where +2 was great defense, +1 was good defense, 0 was neutral defense, -1 was poor defense and -2 was Amar’e Stoudemire level defense. I counted 49 plays where he could be considered ‘involved’ (again this is a fairly subjective definition and one that could reasonably be argued with depending on your read of each play). The results of this experiment are below.

Play #1: Picks up LeBron James on a switch off a high pick-and-roll. LeBron dribbles out to gain a full head of steam and goes right past Howard for an easy layup. (-2)

Play #2: LeBron has a clear out isolation. Howard slides across the paint to prevent the drive, leading to LeBron missing a contested fadeaway jumper. (+2)

Play #3: Chris Bosh catches the ball at the top of the circle. Howard backs off and gives him a wide open 20-footer, which he misses. Bosh shoots 57.5% from 16-24 feet, 52.5% from mid-range and 61.8% from the spot just above the circle, per NBA.com’s stats database. (0)

Play #4: Mario Chalmers runs pick-and-roll with Bosh. Antawn Jamison stays attached to Bosh on P&R coverage, and Howard doesn’t slide across the lane quick enough to block Chalmers’ floater. (-1)

Play #5: Howard hangs back on Wade coming around a Joel Anthony screen, makes no effort to stop him on his way to the rim. Played to his responsibility correctly (it seems that while all Laker bigs other than Howard were instructed either to blitz the ball-handler or stay attached to their man on P&R coverage, Howard was supposed to sink back. He did so every time a P&R was run at him save for one), but executed horrible cutting off Wade’s attempt. (-1)

Play #6: Sinks back in P&R coverage even though Bosh is the screener, is late contesting a Wade floated, but it results in a miss. (0)

Play #7: Sinks back below the free throw line in P&R coverage, just stands there watching as Wade makes a floater directly in front of him. (-1)

Play #8: Wade draws Howard off a switch on pick-and-roll. Howard gets out past the free throw line, forcing a fadeaway miss by Wade. (+1)

Play #9: Initially cuts off Wade’s driving lane on a pick-and-roll, but then mysteriously backs off for a second, leading Wade to make a contested floater. (0)

Play #10: Sinks back on pick-and-roll defense as Wade comes around the screen, but meets him at the edge of the lane. Redirects Wade all the way across the lane before he misses a fadeaway over Howard’s outstretched arm. (+2)

Play #11: Laughable pick-and-roll defense on LeBron/Joel Anthony high pick-and-roll. He’s in the charging circle as LeBron lines up an open 3 with Artest being completely blocked off by Anthony’s pick. Makes zero effort at all to be involved in the play. (-2)

Play #12: Picks up Wade as he comes around the screen, but lets him get below the free throw line and into the lane. Wade misses a floater over him anyway. (0)

Play #13: Howard is late getting back in transition defense, but his man doesn’t get the ball. He’s hesitant coming over to help on Wade, who is posting up Nash. He comes halfway across the lane as if he’s going to help, then just abruptly stops. (-1)

Play #14: Doesn’t guard anybody in delayed transition, forcing strained rotations all over and eventually leading to Bosh getting a post-up on Earl Clark. JaVale-esque goaltend for Dwight. (-2)

Play #15: LeBron faceup opportunity in the post. Dwight abandons Joel Anthony to cut off LeBron’s driving lane, resulted in a missed jumper. (+1)

Play #16: Dwight again hangs back in the lane on pick-and-roll defense, which leaves Bosh with an open elbow jumper. For some reason, Bosh doesn’t shoot it, takes two dribbles, then forces a contested jumper over Dwight. Miss. (0)

Play #17: Sinks back on pick-and-roll defense. Haslem rolls to the rim right past him for a layup. Howard was helping contain a Wade drive and Nash’s help defense crashing in from the corner was poor. (-1)

Play #18: Good help defense coming across the lane to protect against a LeBron drive to the rim, forcing a cross-court pass to Wade. Wade swings the ball in the corner to Haslem (Howard’s man), and Howard recovers to make a good contest on Haslem’s jumper, forcing a miss. (+2)

Play #18: Slides across the lane from the weak to protect against a Wade drive on pick-and-roll. Wade kicks it out to Bosh, who misses an open jumper. (+1)

Play #19: Solid help defense on a Chalmers drive. Blocks the shot to kick start a fast break. (+2)

Play #20: Norris Cole drives the lane and misses a layup over a halfhearted contest by Howard coming over from the weak side. (0)

Play #21: Good job double-teaming LeBron when he runs pick-and-roll with Joel Anthony, but neither he nor Antawn Jamison rotates out to Bosh in time to prevent a jumper. (0)

Play #21: Steps up past the free throw line on LeBron/Bosh pick-and-roll, forcing him into an almost immediate pass. Bosh misses the open jumper. (+1)

Play #22: Wade comes around a screen and Howard stands his ground at the free throw line, forcing a pass to the weak side which results in a miss. (+2)

Play #23: Lets Wade get deep into the lane on pick-and-roll, essentially just watching him dribble from above the free throw line to almost the block. He recovers quickly, but rotations had already started to cover for his mistake, leaving Cole open for a jumper on the opposite side of the court. (-1)

Play #24: Slides over to cut off the roll man on a Wade pick-and-roll. Blown rotation on the other side of the court leads to Cole missing an open jumper. (+1)

Play #25: Passively guards LeBron as he drives the lane. LeBron kicks it out to Battier for an open 3, which he misses. (-1)

Play #26: LeBron comes off a staggered double screen from the corner to catch just above the free throw line. Dwight is watching the ball on the other side of the court and makes no effort to step out on LeBron’s jumper (and/or force a pass), which he misses. (-1)

Play #27: The Heat run the same play for Wade, which Howard seems to recognize as he’s pointing it out to the man guarding Wade, but still offers no help for a jumper around the free throw line. (-1)

Play #28: Same play yet again, this time for LeBron. Again makes no effort to contest a free throw line jumper (and/or force a pass). (-1)

Play #29: Sniffs out the same play for Ray Allen from the weak side this time, but makes a lazy swipe at the ball as Allen curls into the lane for a layup. (-1)

Play #30: Good job helping on Ray Allen curling around a screen into the lane. Forces Allen to take a couple dribbles across the lane, but Allen makes a floater over his hands. (+1)

Play #31: Stands his ground just below the free throw line on a Chalmers high pick-and-roll. Chalmers misses a floater from the back of the lane. (0)

Play #32: Jogs back on defense. Lakers stop the initial transition opportunity, but Howard just jogs straight to the rim once he gets back and leaves Bosh with an open jumper. I especially like his spin move for no apparent reason at midcourt. (-2)

Play #33: The Ray Allen Play. This isn’t good defense, but he really never has a chance. (-1)

Play #34: I have no idea what he was doing or who he was supposed to cover on this play, but it resulted in a basket. (-1)

Play #35: Bosh catches at the elbow in a horns set, kicking off a series of cuts. Howard backs off and gives Bosh an open 18-footer if he wants it. He doesn’t take it, but hits a wide open Ray Allen under the basket even though Howard gets a hand up to try to deflect the pass. Allen blows the layup. (-1)

Play #36: Plays good pick-and-roll defense initially and forces a pass to the weak side, where another pick-and-roll gets kicked off. Howard watches the ball and loses his man (Anthony), leading to an interior pass. Howard fouls him. (-1)

Play #37: Ball watching. Pau gets hit back door, but Battier misses the layup. (0)

Play #38: Jogs back in transition defense, but Chalmers throws a bad pass to Bosh on the break. (0)

Play #39: After a turnover, simply turns and watches a Heat fast break without even pretending to attempt to get back on defense. He wouldn’t have had a chance at disrupting the break anyway as it was a LeBron-Wade-Chalmers 3-on-1, but he made no effort whatsoever. (-1)

Play #40: Literally the exact same thing happens except it’s a Wade-Chalmers 2-on-1. (-1)

Play #41: The Heat get a steal immediately after Play #40. It’s a full 5 seconds after the steal before Howard appears in the picture. Wade gets a backdoor dunk off a ridiculous pass from LeBron. (-2)

Play #42: Jogs back in transition defense. Again about 5 seconds pass on the shot clock before Howard gets below the 3-point line, but Wade misses a floater. (-1)

Play #43: Makes no effort to get back on defense in transition, but Ray Allen goes 1-on-2 and misses in the lane. (-1)

Play #44: Gets back in transition D, but Wade gets fouled after a pump fake. (+1)

Play #45: Jogs back on defense after complaining about a bad pass for a second. Runs straight to the rim without concern for where his man or the ball is. LeBron makes a floater over him just as he turns around. (-2)

Play #46: Gets back on defense, but makes a stupid foul biting on a Wade pump fake when he had him corner underneath the basket. (-1)

Play #47: Jogs back on defense, but someone else gets beat even worse and Wade gets an alley-oop layup. (-1)

Play #48: My favorite Howard poor defense play of the evening. Lollygags back in transition defense, but puts his head down and pumps his arms real fast for about two seconds so he can pretend he’s running harder than he actually is. His man sets a drag screen for LeBron in delayed transition, and LeBron gets right to the basket for a layup. (-2)

Play #49: Gets back in transition defense, but someone leaves Ray Allen open on the other side of the court. He misses a transition 3. (+1)

__________________________________

The results… they were not pretty.

49 plays, -17 overall

13 instances of good or great defense (+13)

10 instances of neutral defense (0)

26 instances of poor or Amar’e Stoudemire level defense (-30)

The Lakers’ overall team defense was pretty poor last night, as it has been for much of the year, but Howard was and is obviously a huge part of that. Their strategy of having him sink back on pick-and-rolls didn’t really make sense, especially since all their other bigs were either blitzing the ball-handler or staying attached to the roll man, depending on who set the screen. Anthony, Battier and Haslem drew the former coverage, while LeBron and Bosh drew more stay-attached coverage.

Howard’s ability to blow up pick-and-rolls from above the free throw line all the way to the rim is one of his major selling points as a defender. Though he’s less physically able this year, having him sink back every single time seems to defeat the purpose of having such an athletic, pick-and-roll swallowing big. Nevertheless, that was the strategy and he was usually initially in the right spot. Once there though, things became much murkier. A few times he contained the ball-handler and forced a bad shot, but more often he let LeBron, Wade or Chalmers get into the lane for a layup, floater or pass to an open shooter or cutter.

His help defense was solid at times, but still left a lot to be desired compared to the Dwight Howard we’re used to. And his transition defense was downright pathetic. It was atrocious. It was… there’s not a strong enough word for how bad it truly was.

So, yeah. That’s that. Dwight Howard. Three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He is not what he once was. Or at least he wasn’t last night. All of this will need to improve if the Lakers want to go anywhere in the postseason.

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