When the Rockets acquired Dwight Howard as their free agent prize, the rumors began immediately that Omer Asik either wanted out because he wanted to start at center (assumedly held down by Howard now) or that the Rockets would trade him unable to pair the two together.
Howard struggled mightily to find himself offensively next to Pau Gasol last year and seems most comfortable playing with a 3-point shooting power forward like he did in Orlando from 2008 until 2012. With the free-wheeling way Houston plays, and an emerging player in Chandler Parsons, it figures this is the way the Rockets will go with their lineups.
Not so fast.
Houston has expressed no desire to immediately trade Asik, knowing how valuable it can be to have two top defensive centers particularly with questions sill surrounding Howard and his health. And now a new wrinkle for the Rockets.
What if the Rockets play Howard at power forward?
Kevin McHale said he would like to experiment with the lineup during training camp and preseason. Howard told the press contingent on his visit to Taiwan that he is on board with the idea:
There is no need to adjust. I have been playing basketball for my whole life. I started it up playing a point guard. I think it can make our team tougher. We need [me] being as a power forward some games and Asik being a center. We will have a big lineup, and it will be tough for teams to truly score
Sounds like Howard is playing the good teammate at the moment. It is worth the experiment. The plain fact though is that Howard has not had to play power forward in a very long time and he struggles in lineups with other big men.
It is important to remember that when teh Magic drafted Howard in 2004, it was to be a power forward. The league had not quite gone through its sabremetric revolution that began valuing spacing and 3-point shooting. Teams still happily picked up a power forward and a center with sometimes duplicative skills.
The Magic themselves had already drafted Howard (over Emeka Okafor) when they acquired Kelvin Cato to play center from the Rockets.
Howard played primarily power forward those first two years, averaging 12.0 points/10.0 rebounds and 15.8 points/12.5 rebounds per game. Howardi s obviously a much different player today, a much improved player. Those early days, Howard was told simply to run the floor, chase down rebounds and dunk it on putbacks.
The Magic tried pairing Howard with another big really only two more times. They acquired Darko Milicic in 2006 and brought him off the bench to spell Howard and to play with Howard. Howard has also been paired with Tony Battie as a power forward opposite him.
Notably too, Howard had his failed partnership with Pau Gasol last year.
Let us not think about Howard shifting to a power forward position -- we are in a positionless NBA now, right? -- but rather think of him being paired with another post player. Here is a table with the primary post-up partners Howard has had in his career (numbers courtesty of Basketball-Reference):
+/- Pts./100 Pos.
Tony Battie (2005)
Kelvin Cato (2005)
Tony Battie (2006)
Darko Milicic (2006)
Tony Battie (2007)
Darko Milicic (2007)
Tony Battie (2009)
Brandon Bass (2010)
Brandon Bass (2011)
Glen Davis (2012)
Pau Gasol (2013)
That is a big chart. You will notice that Howard stopped playing with traditional power forwards beginning in 2008. That is when Stan Van Gundy had the crazy idea to pair Howard with a shooter like Rashard Lewis or Ryan Anderson. Mike D'Antoni really continued that last year. Howard played most with Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark in addition to the time with Pau Gasol.
You may also notice that his pairing with Gasol was one of the worst power forward pairings in Howard's career. Certainly since his rookie year.
Howard has had his most success with power forwards who can stretch the floor and hit a jumper out to 18 feet. Bass and Battie both had that skill. Milicic had that skill to some extent. Gasol did not quite have that range. Their partnership did not quite work out.
So can Howard and Asik work well together? The evidence suggests not.
Omer Asik took 517 of his 653 field goal attempts last season at the rim. He shot 27.4 percent on 117 field goal attempts from 3-10 feet. Asik was not very effective when he was not at the rim last year.
Howard is much the same way. More than 96 percent of his field goal attempts were within 10 feet last year, according to Basketball-Reference. This suggests that the two players would not make a successful pairing because they would both clog the paint. The pairing could hurt both of them -- unless one of the two becomes an incredible passer.
When looking at Howard's successful power forward pairings, they were successful from mid-range. Tony Battie in 2009 took nearly as many shots at the rim as he did from 10-16 feet. Battie shot 51.2 percent from 10-16 feet. Brandon Bass in 2011 took most of his shots from mid-range with 235 attempts (on 47.7 percent shooting) coming from 16-23 feet. Darko Milicic in 2006 took 87 shots from 16-23 feet, most with the Magic.
An efficient shooter from that 10-23 feet range appears to be the best pairing for Howard if the Rockets intend to use a traditional power forward.
Omer Asik does not appear to be that guy.