Kevin McHale and Dwight Howard hold up a jersey not to be used for months (Bob Levey/ Getty).
The addition of All-Star center Dwight Howard has turned the Houston Rockets into one of the NBA's few widely acknowledged title contenders, a squad with the talent and depth to come out of the West this spring. On the other hand, the Rockets also have to figure out exactly what their system is going to look like. Howard left the Los Angeles Lakers in part due to dissatisfaction with what he perceived to be Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense, even though the stats suggested that he got the ball in the low post as much as could reasonably be expected. If the Rockets go with something akin to the same system they utilized in the 2012-13 season, it's possible that Howard will actually find more reason to be upset with his new squad. In fact, D'Antoni has even predicted that Howard will dislike it.
For now, it appears as if the Rockets are not going to appease Howard at any cost. In an interview with Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, head coach Kevin McHale says that he does not anticipate his team playing a significantly slower tempo this season (via EOB):
Q. A lot of last season's success was based on the team's clearly understanding how it needed to play. Can there be carryover, or do you have to change how this team needs to play?
A. I think we're going to play basically the same style. We have to get better defensively, and with Dwight we have to have more of an emphasis on trying to get the ball in the post. Through Dwight running and Dwight doing different things, I think we can do that without really having to change our identity. We still want to get the ball up and down the floor. We still want to be aggressive and run and attack offensively. I think we have two of the top rim protectors in Dwight and Omer, so we have to use those guys. I'd like to use them together. It gives us a chance to have a defensive presence and run off our defense a little more. Our style will change a little bit because our personnel changes, but it won't change dramatically. At least I hope it doesn't.
Q. You put so much emphasis on spacing the floor last season with range shooting. Are you confident you can play Dwight and Omer together?
A. I'm definitely going to give it a shot. Your job is to try to put your best players on the floor. Omer is one of our best players. We have to figure out how we're going to get him on the floor. That's going to be a big thing where we're able to get them on the floor together. We'll rebound very well. They have to space each other. There's going to be some challenges. I'm really looking forward to see. I want it to work. We'll see if it does work.
It should be said that McHale is probably right not to bend the system to Howard's stated needs. Given that Howard had problems with a system that actually gave him the ball where he said he wanted it, it's likely that the exact form of the offense is not quite as important as its effectiveness and the degree to which Howard gets credit for its success. With the Lakers, Howard appeared to be upset largely both because things usually didn't work and because Kobe Bryant got most of the credit when they did. It was somewhat clear that his issues with the offense did not arise from a purely logical reaction to their realities, and treating his impressions as a coherent argument in need of immediate response would be a mistake.
On the other hand, McHale's comments on his hopes for the Rockets' system might not make a ton of sense. While our Kelly Dwyer has already supported the idea of Howard and Omer Asik playing together in the paint, that partnership depends on both players agreeing to it despite the fact that they prefer to occupy the same spaces on the floor. Asik has already suggested that he was not terribly pleased that the Rockets signed Howard to play his position, and Howard could bristle at another big-man pairing after his problematic experience playing next to Pau Gasol last season. Plus, even if it does work, the Rockets will be playing two centers in a league that seems to be getting increasingly smaller and quicker. If McHale wants to play a fast pace, then it's unclear how he can also have Asik and Howard in the same lineup. The two systems are individually logical but almost certainly mutually exclusive.
The Rockets are not yet in training camp, so McHale can be forgiven for putting forth a best-case scenario in the hope that everything comes together extremely well. However, using Howard's Lakers as precedent, it's useful to remember that the best laid plans of coaches and GMs oft go astray. Soon, these challenges will become all too real.
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