Howard Beck and Ethan Skolnick Make Their Official 2015 NBA Finals Predictions

The 2014-15 NBA season is almost upon us, with several teams hoping to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the year. Who is in the best position to reach the top of the NBA mountain?

Howard Beck and Ethan Skolnick make their official NBA Finals predictions when they join Ric Bucher in the video above.

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Howard Beck and Ric Bucher: Most Overlooked Storylines of the 2014-15 NBA Season

The 2014-15 NBA season is right around the corner, and there is no shortage of massive storylines that have dominated the basketball landscape. But what are some narratives that have been overlooked in the lead-up to this year?

Howard Beck and Ric Bucher join Adam Lefkoe to give their take in the video above.

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Harden leads Rockets over Memphis as Howard sits (Yahoo Sports)

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 9: Ish Smith #5 of the Houston Rockets drives to the basket against the Memphis Grizzlies during the game on October 9, 2014 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden scored 21 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 113-93 preseason victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night.


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Dwight Howard Can Still Win Defensive Player of the Year Again Very Soon

It wasn’t that long ago that Dwight Howard was universally considered the best center and defensive player in the league. However, declining play the last two seasons has raised the question: Can he regain his Defensive Player of the Year form?

While he was with the Orlando Magic, Howard was a beast. From the 2007-08 season until 2011, he was First Team All-NBA, First Team All-Defensive Team and the East’s starting center in the All-Star Game.

From 2008-09 through 2010-11, he was the named the DPOY, making him the only player to ever win the award three consecutive times.

However, since then he hasn’t dominated to the same degree. He’s still one of the best in the league, but he’s no longer clearly better than everyone else. Not only has he not won any more DPOY awards, but he hasn’t even been named to an All-Defensive team.

This raises the question: Is Howard’s career in decline, or have injuries and switching teams just put a speed bump on his road to the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument. Let’s also consider whether Howard can return his defense to an elite level.

 

The Argument For a Career Decline

Many of the factors that go into deciding awards such as DPOY or All-Defensive or All-NBA teams are purely subjective. During the “Dwightmare” saga which spanned from the 2011-12 season to the summer of 2013, Howard’s image took a massive hit.

The perception (fair or not) is that he got Stan Van Gundy fired and left Orlando anyway, earning the reputation of a wishy-washy coach-killer.

After being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, he decided he didn’t like where he’d been traded and bolted in free agency for the Houston Rockets, leaving another slain coach (Mike Brown), a shattered franchise and a miffed Kobe Bryant in his wake.

And he did it all while smiling, shooting free throws for candy and eating cookies off his face. The cavalier, seemingly childish attitude he held through all of it was somewhere between off-putting and infuriating, depending on where your loyalties were.

Some could argue that the perception of his character, not his play, is the reason why the accolades have stopped coming.

But the numbers argue for decline.

With his offense, that’s expected. He went from being Orlando’s offensive centerpiece to being a second option with Los Angeles and Houston. But his defensive numbers have been taking a hit, too, as demonstrated by his defensive win shares per 48 minutes.

And yes, teams can impact those things, but defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) and its predecessor, defensive real adjusted plus-minus (DRAPM), tracked by stats-for-the-nba.appspot.com, at least attempt to mitigate some of those factors. And that shows the same conclusion:

Sometimes those subjective voters are relying on substantive data objectively. It looks like Howard’s career is in decline.

 

The Argument Against Decline

The problem with the objective argument is that it’s overly simplistic, annulling the possibility of mitigating factors. That his numbers have regressed could mean that his career is in decline. It could also mean other things.

It could be injury-related. Prior to his being traded to the Lakers, Howard had a lumbar microdiscectomy to treat radiculopathy caused by a herniated disc. In layman’s terms, that means he had to have some gunk removed from his back because it was making for a serious owie.

Howard told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles what the injury was like at its worst:

There was a practice where I couldn’t even bend over. I just felt it all the way down my leg. That’s when I knew something was wrong. The doctor said, ‘If you can’t do a calf raise, you need to have surgery.’ And I couldn’t do it.

Not being able to use your legs is bad. Legs and basketball go really well together, what with all that running and jumping stuff. So, Howard went under the knife. According to Doug Freeman of the Good Point:

While this type of surgery has generally had a positive impact on the symptoms and has allowed athletes to return to their sport, it isn’t foolproof when it comes to getting an NBA player back to their past level of production. In a study looking at a player’s ability to return to sport after a lumbar disc herniation, researchers found that 25% (6 out of 24) of players who underwent a discectomy did not return to the NBA. Of the players that did return, they played an average of 20 less games in their first season back from surgery. There was also a decline in statistical categories such as points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game and steals per game in their first season post-surgery (although no difference was found between players who had surgery and those who did not).

The first season back, one would expect to see the type of decline Howard had, especially when you factor in that he was experiencing a torn labrum over the same period.

Last season he was recovered, and if health were a part of the reason for the decline, then we’d have expected to see Howard gradually improve over the course of the season. Based on data from NBA.com/STATS, his offensive and defensive ratings from month to month show his impact on the game did just that:

In fact, during April, the Rockets had a massive 124.5 offensive rating while Howard was on the court and were yielding just 103.7—good for a net rating of 20.8 points. 

The defense fluctuated more, but it was significantly better with Howard than without it, giving up two fewer points per 100 possessions. Patrick Beverley, the All-Defensive point guard, also missed time, which accounted for some of the variance.

Howard’s improvement supports the notion that as he got healthy and got his conditioning back, his game returned to the same pre-injury levels.

Additionally, a study at stats-for-the-NBA.appspot.com shows a conventional aging curve for defensive players. They typically maintain prime performance up until around 32 to 33 years of age. Howard is still only 28. Ergo, he’s a long way from the point where age starts taking hold of him.

A fair assessment indicates that the injuries, not age, are the reason for the decline in numbers. That means a bounce is a reasonable expectation. Next year should be a nearly complete return to form.

 

Can Howard’s Defense Return to an Elite Level?

Howard’s 2010-11 season was one of the most dominating defensive years I’ve ever witnessed. The Magic were only the third-best defense in the league that year, but Howard’s performance was still historically great.

Getting to “only” third was impossible, yet he still did it. To say that Howard didn’t have any help on defense is to give the rest of the team entirely too much credit. The best help Howard had was Mickael Pietrus, Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat.

So what happened? Barely more than one month into the season, the Magic traded those guys for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark. So he went from having almost no defensive help to absolutely no help.

Howard didn’t miss a beat, though. He just made everyone around him look better. Surrounded with Jameer Nelson, Richardson, Turkoglu and Brandon Bass, he strapped the team on his back and carried them to being the third-best defense in the NBA (no wonder he needed surgery!).

Look at what happened to the opponent’s Player Efficiency Rating (oPER from 82games.com) of the teammates involved in the trade:

Pietrus and Gortat didn’t see much impact on their oPER, but it’s evident that Howard was compensating for the flaws of the others.

I don’t know if Howard can ever achieve that level of defense again. It was such a feat, though, that he doesn’t have to in order to get back to All-Defensive or even Defensive Player of the Year stature. His numbers aren’t as dominant, but his 4.91 DRPM was still sixth-best last year, so it’s not far off.

In fact, his numbers are close enough that he could even win the DPOY next year. That’s because he has something he’s never had before: two teammates who can stop at the perimeter.

Last season was the first time in his career that Howard saw a teammate (Beverley) named to an All-Defensive team. Now they’ve added Trevor Ariza, who has All-Defensive potential as well. That frees Howard to lay back and do what he does the best—protect the rim. And a great rim protector can change the entire complexion of a team when given the chance.

If the Howard-Ariza-Beverley triumvirate can hoist the Rockets to a top-five defense, Howard will deserve the most credit for it and will get it. That can elevate him back into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Joakim Noah got there last year with the help of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Marc Gasol won it in 2012-13 with the help of Tony Allen and Mike Conley.

Howard might not ever get back to the same level of dominance he enjoyed in Orlando, but he’s close enough to get his fourth DPOY. 

 

Unless otherwise stated, the stats for this article were obtained from 82games.com, Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/STATS

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Watchability: Are Harden and Howard enough?

James Harden and Dwight Howard remain the front men as the Rockets’ rhythm section changed.

      
 

 

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Howard Beck and Ric Bucher Answer the NBA’s Toughest Questions

The NBA season is rapidly approaching, and there is no shortage of major storylines. Which backcourt would you rather build around?

Howard Beck and Ric Bucher join Adam Lefkoe to play a game of “Would You Rather” in the video above.

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Dwight Howard has license suspended, ran 10 red lights

Dwight Howard’s wallet got a little bit lighter this week after his license was revoked in Orange County (Fla.) for running ten red lights during a two-and-a-half-year period starting in 2012. TMZ reports that Howard only has to pay $285 to get it reinstated, which, along with being a screaming deal, is basically “couch money” for a guy who’s starting Year 2 of a 4-year, $88 million contract. Although, we gotta say, after the week (or so) the NFL just had, this all seems rather quaint. [FoxSports] Article found on: Next Impulse Sports

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Wizards hire Howard Eisley as assistant coach (Yahoo Sports)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Washington Wizards have hired former NBA guard Howard Eisley as an assistant coach.

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Wizards hire Howard Eisley as assistant coach

Washington Wizards hire former NBA guard Howard Eisley as assistant coach

      
 

 

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Why Houston Rockets Need Dwight Howard to Embrace the Pick-and-Roll Game

The Houston Rockets were an offensive juggernaut last season.

Scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions last season, the Rockets held the fourth-best mark in the league. They ranked third in effective field-goal percentage, first in free-throw rate and seventh in offensive rebound percentage.

Other than a high turnover rate, it was difficult to find fault with anything they did on offense—yet somehow they left us wanting more.

The culprit for this disconnect between terrific performance and frustrating dissatisfaction clearly revolves around the synergyor lack thereofbetween James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Both are phenomenal offensive players, each with well-defined strengths and weaknesses. Although their games grew more intertwined through the season, it still felt like they were often stepping on each other’s feet or dramatically clearing out of the other’s way.

The most obvious disconnect involves Howard’s post-up game.

According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Howard scored just 0.77 points per possession on post-ups last year, good for 128th in the league.

However, the Rockets offense accommodated 785 possessions finished by Howard in the post during the regular season and playoffs, or just over 10 per game. That worked to about about 8.1 percent of their total offensive possessions.

Remember that we’re just talking about possessions where Howard either attempted a shot, turned the ball over or was fouled while posting up. Other good things often happened when Howard posted up, such as manipulating the defense to create openings for other players.

Still, using 8.1 percent of your total offensive possessions on an approach with such a low level of efficiency seems counterproductive.

That impression becomes even stronger when you consider Howard’s prowess in the pick-and-roll. When he finished as the screener in the pick-and-roll, Howard scored an average of 1.31 points per possession. That was the third-best mark in the league last season.

Put that together with Harden’s elite abilities with the ball in his hands, and the recipe for turbo-charging this offense seems to clearly be more Harden-Howard pick-and-rolls.

When they are working in the pick-and-roll together, both players are at their best—both are in motion. Howard isn’t clogging up driving lanes for Harden, and Harden isn’t standing on the perimeter with his hands on his shorts, waiting for the ball to come back out to the perimeter.

If you need an example of just how devastating this combination can be, check out the video below:

Harden’s ability to penetrate demands aggressive pursuit by his defender and a significant hedge by Howard’s.

Once Howard catches the ball, his strength and agility are far too much for the back line of the defense. If the Miami Heat play Harden any less aggressively, he’s charging into the teeth of the defense and getting to the basket or drawing a foul.

Simply put, the Howard-Harden pick-and-roll makes the best use of both players’ offensive abilities.

Position shooters like Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza around the one-two punch, and these pick-and-rolls become even more deadly.

Unfortunately, just saying the Rockets should run more Howard-Harden pick-and-rolls isn’t as simple as it sounds. Howard’s preference for being stationed in the post is well-known.

He has often restated this preference as way to help get his teams back on track, which he did to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle in the middle of their playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers last season:

We have to play inside out, play their bigs and make it a long night for those guys. I have to demand the ball, get it and go to work.

We have to go right back at him. You have to make him play defense and make him use his energy on defense. Make him have to run around and guard.

His teammates seemed to be on the same page as well. Chandler Parsons echoed roughly the same sentiments to Feigen.

“We have to dump the ball down for him. He has to make plays. He’s had a lot of success against (Robin) Lopez. We have to keep feeding him the ball. That doesn’t mean we have to slow down. We want to get out in transition and run,” he said.

The idea that Howard, his teammates and, at some level, the coaching staff seem to be exploring is the way Howard’s post-ups can distort the defense. The Rockets certainly got better at this throughout the season, finding new and different ways to build motion around him. 

Drew Garrison of SBNation broke down some of this improvement in early March:

Howard pulls defenders in like a tractor beam. Harden and Parsons have space to operate and turned heads to zip by. Parsons has been the greatest beneficiary, slicing through defenses and getting to the rim throughout the season. Houston’s philosophy is simple: points in the paint, open threes and free-throws 

The offense has been altered to give him [Howard] his low-post touches, but isn’t dependent on him sinking a high percentage of his attempts. The threat of his post scoring is enough.

The last sentence of that quote is key. It is the threat of his post scoring that bends the defense.

Take the Howard post-up below, for example. You can see how the offensive motion stops as soon as Howard catches the ball. Harden’s man, Dwyane Wade, is cheating in for a soft double on Howard.

But by the time Harden really gets open, Howard has already spun baseline, beginning his move:

The thing is, the way the offense becomes static really limits the options here. There may be the possibility for a cut on the weak side, but essentially this offensive possession is winnowed down to Howard and Harden.

There is a moment when a kick-out from Howard leads to Harden with the ball in his hands and plenty of space to attack. That sort of scenario is generally much likelier to lead to a positive outcome than Howard spinning baseline for a jump hook.

As Garrison noted, the opening for Harden created by the soft double-team only occurs because the Heat know Howard is active and likely to shoot when he catches the ball on the block.

If Howard stops attempting so many shots in the low post, opponents stop doubling and the hyper-efficient shots for teammates that come off of those possessions evaporate.

Although it isn’t quite as cut-and-dry as the simple difference between Howard’s 0.77 points per possession on post-ups and 1.31 points per possession as the screener in the pick-and-roll, the Rockets offense seems to get better outcomes when Howard is in motion at the offensive end.

The Rockets are one of the most statistically savvy teams in the NBA and are almost certainly aware of this. 

However, they need to live with a certain amount of Howard post-upsboth to keep him happy and keep the defense working honestly against all of the different offensive scenarios the Rockets throw at them.

Ultimately, the Rockets need both pieces of their offense—the post-ups and the pick-and-rolls. The key is the balance. As you can see from the graph below, that’s where the Rockets can make some improvements in their offensive efficiency:

The graph shows the ratio of post-up possessions to pick-and-roll screener possessions for Howard across the last five seasons.

Last year with the Rockets, Howard finished 7.5 post-up possessions for every possession he finished as the screener in the pick-and-roll. Although that was lower than his peak in Orlando, it was significantly higher than his two previous seasons—his last with the Magic and his one season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

If the Houston Rockets want to push the boundaries of their offensive efficiency even further, the task is not enormous.

They don’t have to redesign everything or try and talk Howard into abandoning his interior possessions. Houston just needs to work on subtly shifting the balance. It may seem like a scary proposition, especially considering how frustrated Howard was with his role in Los Angeles, but the coaching staff wouldn’t be asking him to do something he hasn’t done before.

The Rockets are a process-oriented organization with the patience and foresight to see how small changes at the margins can have a big impact when stretched across an entire season.

If anyone can gently nudge Dwight Howard towards a more advantageous offensive distribution while still maintaing the integrity of the system and his commitment to its principles, it’s Houston.

 

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats.

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