From day one of Mike D'Antoni's tenure as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, folks have been critical of his hiring. He can't coach defense, people say. He's got too much ego. He plays his players into the ground. He plays at too fast a pace for an old team like LA. He's too inflexible about his system. These are all valid opinions, and they have varying degrees of accuracy. And then there's the other reason that so often gets mentioned, especially in relation to a certain big man's impending free agency; that Mike D'Antoni is the wrong coach for Dwight Howard. Phil Jackson said it. Charles Barkley said it. Magic Johnson said it. Hell, in (allegedly) voicing displeasure about D'Antoni to Mitch Kupchak in his exit interview, Dwight Howard all but said it, too. That's a whole bunch of expert opinion on the subject of Dwight Howard's ill fit with Mike D'Antoni's coaching. It's also a whole bunch of stupid. There are plenty of good reasons to be displeased with Mike D'Antoni's coaching last season, and to think that his hire was a bad idea in the first place. His pairing with Dwight Howard isn't one of them.
In fact, the pairing of Dwight Howard's game and Mike D'Antoni's system is a match made in heaven. They are perfect for each other, and they both appear to be too stupid to see it.
Dwight Howard and Mike D'Antoni aren't perfect for each other because they are the same. They are perfect for each other because they are different. The ideal marriage, for example, is not between two people who are the same. If two Type A personality people get married, there will be too much conflict and not enough flexibility. If two laid back people get married, nothing ever gets done. If two slobs get married, they will end up living in squalor. The ideal marriage is one in which each partner brings a different set of strengths and weaknesses to the table, and one partner's strengths match up and cover for the other partner's weaknesses, and vice versa. Once you have that, add in enough common interest to keep both parties interested in each other and you have the equation of a perfect marriage. Nobody in this world is perfect; everybody has their flaws, their weaknesses. But if you find the right partner, your one true soul mate, the person who compliments you perfectly, you can, together, form one perfect entity. That is the ideal marriage.That is exactly the type of partnership Dwight Howard and Mike D'Antoni could forge if both of them committed to it. Neither one seems to see it, and neither one is willing to admit it (though the negativity seems mainly to be emanating from Dwight), but the truth is right there, staring both of them in the face.
Mike D'Antoni is Dwight Howard's basketball soul mate.
Mike D'Antoni is not a perfect coach. Many of the complaints listed above are the reasons why. His teams have never been particularly good defensively, and he does heavily prefer to run his system even if the personnel at his disposal don't necessarily fit in to the system very well. But he does have strengths. His teams have routinely been between very good and historically good offensively. When placed into the perfect situation, he did lead the Phoenix Suns to one of the best runs in their history, and he did, you know, sorta, kinda, revolutionize the way the entire NBA played basketball in the 2000s. It's true that he hasn't had much success since then, and he might very well be a one trick pony which the league has figured out and surpassed, but at the very least, let us give him his credit where he is due. His strength is a high-octane offense, which requires a visionary point guard to run the fast break and captain the high screen and roll, and an athletic big man to set strong screens and finish well as the roll man.
Dwight Howard is not a perfect player, and his imperfections make it stunning that so many experts seem to think he was mis-utilized because the Lakers didn't dump the ball down to him in the post enough last year. If anything, the Lakers dumped the ball into Dwight in the post way too much. Dwight Howard's post game is not, in any way, under any circumstances, something that should be considered a strength. Last year, for example, he averaged just .74 points per possession(PPP) in post up play, ranking 121st in the league. 121st!!! That means that every team in the NBA had, on average, FOUR players more adept at turning post up possessions into points than Dwight Howard. But Dwight Howard was recovering from back surgery, you say? Even at the height of his powers, Dwight was never all that good as a post up player. In 2009-2010, he ranked 67th in post up play. The following year, he was 56th. Even when he was one of the kings of the NBA, Dwight Howard has always been an amazing player in spite of his post game, not because of it. And, with a solid decade in the NBA under his belt, it would be incredibly foolish to expect Dwight to improve significantly from this point forward. Dwight Howard is what he is, and being a strong post-up player is just not a club in his bag.
Guess what Dwight Howard IS good at offensively? Being the roll man in the pick and roll. In the three years prior to his back surgery, Dwight ranked 1st, 1st and 2nd in the league in PPP as the roll man in the pick and roll. I'm not a mathematician or anything, but that sounds a hell of a lot better than what he was doing in the post. Last year, his roll game, like everything else, declined rather drastically as his league rank fell all the way to ... 8th. That's right, even as Dwight's game was nearly unrecognizable for much of the year, even as he struggled and labored up and down the court, he was STILL a top ten roll man in the league. And that's not all! If the Lakers ever did manage to get the right personnel to make the 2nd half of D'Antoni's offensive system a reality (i.e. the fast break, seven seconds or less, component), 100% Dwight excels at that, too. In Orlando, Dwight's speed, athleticism and stamina allowed him to be an excellent rim-runner on the break.
And then there is Dwight's other strength. At his best (and this whole exercise assumes he will come close to returning to his best), Dwight Howard is nothing short of the best defensive player the NBA has seen in two decades. He is a man who can single handedly destroy pick and rolls, grab every rebound in a 15 foot radius, and generally terrorize any offensive game plan that even pretends to involve the paint. A good defensive scheme allowed Dwight Howard and a bunch of (defensive) scrubs to have a top five (and usually top 3) defense for years in Orlando. In Los Angeles, Dwight did not have, and probably will not have, a good defensive scheme, but the idea behind trading for him is that he can make a team above average defensively all on his own. That idea failed dramatically last season, and it was the single biggest disappointment of Dwight's time (so far) in Los Angeles. There was, however, marked improvement in the defense, and Dwight's role in it, towards the end of the year, enough so to believe that Dwight's continued recovery would make the whole "let Dwight be Dwight" defensive plan look like a good idea again.
So, let's recap: Mike D'Antoni is a coach with a strong offensive mind who likes to run the fast break and the high pick and roll, and who has never been known to coach defense particularly well (or at all, really). Dwight Howard is one of the best athletic specimens the league has seen in 20 years, a guy who (at his best) can make so many defensive plays that he really doesn't need a defensive scheme to be moderately successful. Because of that same tremendous strength and athleticism, Dwight is also the best roll man in the league and an excellent component of a potentially potent fast break. What Dwight is not is a guy you want to dump the ball into on the block every time down the court. Which, you know, Mike D'Antoni doesn't want to do any way. Mike D'Antoni's offense puts Dwight in the best position to succeed, and Dwight Howard's defense mitigates Mike D'Antoni's lack of defensive acumen. Between the two of them, they literally form one perfect basketball strategy.
They are basketball soul mates, a perfect match for what could be a perfect marriage. Too bad neither one of them seems smart enough to see it.
Stats provided courtesy of MySynergySports.com.