Hakeem Olajuwon thinks he can help Dwight Howard’s post-up game. He thought the same thing a few years ago when he worked with the Houston Rockets star center, and he thought the same last summer when he worked with him. He wants to work with him again, you should note, and that he thinks further workout sessions will help the big man’s declining fortunes down low.
Of course, Rockets coach Kevin McHale thought he could help Dwight Howard’s post-up game. The same goes for Patrick Ewing when Dwight studied under the big coach in Orlando. And if you watched last Thursday’s Rockets/New York Knicks game on TNT, you saw that Turner analysts Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal thought they could help Dwight Howard’s post-up game. There are a lot of voices in this chorus.
The issue here is that, at this point in Dwight Howard’s career, nobody can really help Dwight Howard’s post-up game. And before the cranky retirees, anxious Rox fans and happy haters get to tearing Dwight up over this, understand that this might not be Howard’s fault in the slightest.
First, Hakeem’s lament. From Fran Blinebury at NBA.com:
“The truth is that I can’t wait to get back to Houston to do more work with Dwight,” said Olajuwon, who left Houston in early October to return to his home in Amman, Jordan and has been keeping track of his pupil on TV. “I wish he was doing a better job.
“Dwight has always been athletic and aggressive and he still is. But when I watch him, what I see are opportunities that he is missing. When he gets the ball, he seems to be taking his time to decide what move to make, where he should go.
“There should not be a delay for Dwight. He must be able to make a faster recognition of the situations and react immediately with a go-to move. You must move right away before the defense has a chance to set up. You must be the one making the first move so that you can force the defender to always be the one reacting.
“I thought we were doing a good job with this when we were working together over the summer and at the start of training camp. But what I see now is that when Dwight gets in competition, he has a tendency to go back to all of his old habits. He’s just doing all of the things that he did before. He needs a reminder.”
It’s quite true that Howard needs a bit of a quicker light up when he gets the ball down low. When Dwight surveys cutters and feels out his opponent, as you saw last year and most certainly in the post-ups that are available this year, he lets both his individual defender and the rest of the opposing team’s defense gear up in anticipation of the eventual move or pass. It’s not unlike a perimeter player taking his time in an isolation set with little movement; with the added benefit that Dwight is just a short jump hook away from two points, as opposed to 25 feet away.
It’s that benefit that encourages teams to keep looking for low post offense in the modern NBA, even if rule changes have increasingly taken away the gains attributed to this sort of style. Nobody is asking the Houston Rockets to turn into the Hakeem-era Rockets – all constant post-ups and the collapse and pitch and shoot-play that resulted – but Houston is asking Howard to be efficient and quick with his work when they do go to the man. The stats and the video tell us he’s not following through on this.
Will he ever? Yes. The Rockets will continue to improve and gain offensive chemistry as the year moves along, and Dwight will become more and more confident down low. It’s early.
Will Dwight ever turn into the all-around low post demon that fans, writers, and ex-players want him to be? No. And that’s not entirely Dwight’s fault.
To begin, Dwight was already that sort of low post demon in years prior, but critics tended to fixate on his awkward moves and iffy free throw shooting (to say nothing of the behind the scenes drama) while Howard worked with the Orlando Magic. It may not have looked as obvious as Shaquille O’Neal’s killer drop step or as pretty as some of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s moves, but Howard was the best low post scorer in basketball during his last few years in Orlando. It’s understandable that this has been forgotten by some, but it is worth reminding those who are unaware.
Secondly, this isn’t Hakeem’s league anymore. It hasn’t been for years.
Rule changes to modify and then fully dismiss zone defense laws in 1999 and 2001 have created a more fluid, entertaining style of basketball. It’s also taken away the sort of space that low post bangers once enjoyed. No longer can a Barkley or Olajuwon or even Mark Jackson-type take his time in the post before they go into their array of moves, or eventual passes. The NBA’s low post used to be a party, but right now it’s just a crowd – as the abolition of illegal defense rules allows for all manner of quick guards and forwards to keep their hands all over the paint without initial penalty. Yes, Shaquille O’Neal ruled the airwaves for a few years there, but he also had the space-creating triangle offense on his side, not to mention one Kobe Bean Bryant.
Think about some of the NBA’s better current “low post” players. Scorers like Brook Lopez and Greg Monroe really have to do their work at the post extended, a few feet up from where the dinosaurs of a different era roamed, and their often forced to face up before going into quick in-between moves. The days of “bang, bang, bang/obvious move” are over. There are just too many opposing limbs to work through.
There are other significant factors here. Dwight still looks far different from his Magic days due to his back condition, but he appears to be improving game by game; things should be relatively fine by spring. And yes, Dwight would do well to possibly approximate Lopez and Monroe’s in-between game, but he seems uncertain about unleashing that face-up, Tim Duncan-styled bank shot that he swears he makes in practice. Duncan, who seemingly hasn’t thrown an Alonzo Mourning-styled low post jump hook in years, has added years to his game with that move.
We’re begging (and, in Howard’s case, training) for something that might be an anachronism. In comparison to the slog-fests that inspired those fin de siècle rule changes, though, we’ll take the modern NBA. It’s not even close.
And for Rockets fans? Dwight will only get better, and adapt on the fly. On top of that, your team has won eight of 12 despite myriad injuries, trade demands, Howard’s relatively slow start, and unfamiliarity with a growing young roster. All while unleashing a (statistically) top five offense.
Hakeem Olajuwon will soon be walking through that door, folks, but don’t panic if Hakeem Olajuwon 2.0 doesn’t eventually come out of his particular lab. Those days are over, and that’s just fine.
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