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Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and the Lakers' Pick-and-roll Offense: What Could've Been?

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Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and the Lakers' Pick-and-roll Offense: What Could've Been?
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Dwight Howard resisted the pick-and-roll offense.

COMMENTARY | When Steve Nash talked about Dwight Howard's reluctance to run the pick-and-roll with the Los Angeles Lakers, he highlighted a lost opportunity to do something special.

The eight-time All-Star spoke candidly on Tuesday about what he felt was a hesitancy on the big man's part to accept a role that was tailor-made for him.

"He didn't seem like he really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense, Nash explained on ESPN LA 710 radio's "Mason and Ireland" show. "Maybe because he had run one in Orlando for so long and he wanted to get in the post more."

The modern NBA is a pick-and-roll heavy league, where the traditional, back-to-the-basket center of yesteryear has gone the way of the typewriter. There's a new premium on athleticism and being able to stretch the floor (think of Sacramento Kings forward / center DeMarcus Cousins, the non-head case version, as the prototype).

The ironic thing about Howard being opposed to running that offense is that he had arguably the best pick-and-roll orchestrator in league history to feed him the ball.

Lakers fans saw first-hand in the disastrous 2012-13 campaign how a special opportunity to watch two players utilize their best skills in what could've been a two-man game for the ages never came to fruition.

Nash, a world-class passer, would have been able to thread the ball neatly to Howard almost at will while showcasing the skill that made him the NBA's fourth all-time assist-maker. But Howard resisted and wanted the ball on the low block.

The numbers told part of the story. First, a look at Howard and Nash together last season:

Dwight Howard's 2012-13 Field Goal Percentages

Overall

Restricted Area: 69%

In the paint (non-RA): 36%

Mid-range: 21%

Nash on the floor

Restricted Area: 68%

In the paint (non-RA): 30%

Mid-range: 23%

Nash off the floor

Restricted Area: 70%

In the paint (non-RA): 38%

Mid-range: 20%

How could a player known for consistently making bigs better fail to make a great finisher and athlete like Howard improve on offense? Injuries to both players took their toll to be sure, but there's more to it. It was a system issue, and Nash played without the ball in his hands far too much. His statement indicated that Howard may have had something to do with that.

By comparison, look at the numbers of two players who Nash played with and maximized their potential. First, Amar'e Stoudemire was a player who Nash literally turned in to a perennial All-Star and helped earn a near $100 million contract with the New York Knicks.

It's not by accident that the same year when Stoudemire went from scoring 20.6 points per game the year before to 26.0 in 2004-05 is the same season Nash joined the Phoenix Suns.

Here's a snapshot of what Stoudemire did in terms of shots by distance that year:

Amare Stoudemire shots by distance, 2004-05

< 5-feet: 68%, 5.7 FGA per game

5-9 feet: 42%, 2.8 FGA per game

10-14 feet: 42%, 1.8 FGA per game

15-19 feet: 49%, 3.3 FGA per game

Of note, he averaged less than one shot attempt per game outside of 19 feet.

Notice the trends in shot percentage based on where he was on the floor. Inside of five feet, he took nearly half of his overall shot attempts. That's a direct result of getting the ball in rhythm and with some space to finish based on a properly executed screen-and-roll.

Another interesting number is his high field goal percentage from 15-19 feet. It's significantly higher at 49 percent than his shot attempts relative to 5-14 feet. The 15-19 foot range is the area where Stoudemire would get looks off of pick-and-pop action in order to keep defenses honest. That's exactly what he did by converting nearly half of those mid-range attempts (ones he wouldn't take unless he were open).

The point of all of this is that Nash's passing ability is what helped to create these opportunities for Amar'e.

When Stoudemire parlayed that production into a huge contract under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, it was Marcin Gortat who took the torch and became the next player to benefit from Nash's presence. He went from averaging 9.7 points per 36 minutes in 81 games in 2009-10 to 15.8 in the same category in 55 games alongside Nash in 2010-11.

Here's where the Nash effect really comes into play. Gortat is more of the Dwight Howard mold in that neither can stretch the floor as well as Stoudemire. Considering that, let's look at Gortat's field goals with and without Nash on the floor during their best season together.

Marcin Gortat's 2010-11 Field Goal Percentages*:

Overall

Restricted Area: 67%

In the paint (non-RA): 35%

Mid-range: 42%

Nash on the floor

Restricted Area: 66%

In the paint (non-RA): 33%

Mid-range: 25%

Nash off the floor

Restricted Area: 33%

In the paint (non-RA): No shots

Mid-range: 33%

* In 55 games with the Phoenix Suns

Nash and Gortat played the second-most minutes of any two-man combination that season, which is significant considering Gortat joined the team in December. Looking at the data within the restricted area, it's easy to see that Nash makes a difference for bigs inside when the screen-roll offense is clicking.

This is more consistent with what Nash brings when the pick-and-roll is well established, something that never happened in Los Angeles with Howard. Injuries, the lack of a training camp and Howard's reluctance to embrace the system cost everyone a chance to see what he and Nash could do together.

The Lakers' offense wasn't bad by any stretch last year -- the Lakers were a top-10 team offensively with a rating of 107.8, which was good for ninth in the NBA. But it's at least logical based on Nash's remarks and several reports that Howard's unahppiness with the system are in part what caused him to leave town.

That means the abysmal defense from last season will suffer further next year by default since Howard was by far their best defender and rim protector.

The important thing to consider with Stoudemire and Gortat as it relates to Nash is that Howard is better than both, although he lacks refinement on offense. His athleticism, especially when healthy, would have made Nash's job easy and the Lakers more exciting to watch.

The one-year sample size of the Howard-Nash dynamic is small, but fans will likely never get to see the two share a locker room as teammates again. It could've been special had things come together and the perfect storm of misfortune didn't strike so ferociously in LA.

More irony is that Howard ran the pick-and-roll with the Orlando Magic surrounded by shooters who could stretch the floor like J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson to an extent. He was successful, too, going to the NBA Finals where the Magic eventually lost to the Lakers in 2009.

The Houston Rockets run a pick-and-roll, which Nash pointed out in the lengthy interview, but in all likelihood they will adjust the offense to suit Howard. They'll have a pair of legends, head coach Kevin McHale and noted member of the Rockets' extended family Hakeem Olajuwon, to work with him and integrate him into their system.

Also consider that Howard never played with a ball-dominating guard like Kobe Bryant until last year, and having the offense flow through Bryant every play was another factor that hurt the Lakers' cause when it came time to convince him to stay.

The offense just never came together, and what's worse is that Howard never gave it a chance.

"(Howard) really just never quite felt comfortable at home, and I don't know that that's anybody's fault," Nash added.

For more on the Lakers and the NBA, catch up with this author on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets

Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA as a Southern California-based sports journalist and editor. He contributes to SB Nation in addition to Yahoo! Sports and is the managing editor and founder of Sports Out West.

Statistics via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com

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