Dream Week: Waking Up the Past
FD's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be officially released on October 26, but the celebration is beginning early. Inspired, and curated, by Brian Phillips of Run of Play, DREAM WEEK features some of your fastest and most favorite writers trying to crack the mystery of Hakeem Olajuwon and his Rockets.
Sebastian Pruiti was the founder of NetsAreScorching, a blog dedicated to the New Jersey Nets, and currently runs NBA Playbook, a site that uses videos and images to examine the Xs and Os of the NBA. You can follow him on Twitter. Nate Parham covers Seattle-area basketball for SBN Seattle and manages SBN's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.com while fantasizing about the day the Golden State Warriors return to glory. He has previously written here about Allen Iverson and the NBA's treatment of MLK Day.
The video of Dwight Howard imitating Hakeem Olajuwon's moves was a chance to stretch the imagination for those in search of possibilities for Howard's still limitless potential.
But it was also a reminder of just how great Olajuwon was. At 47, he navigates the block more smoothly than many NBA hopefuls you'll see in the pre-season right now. Watching him articulate the logic of his game to Howard shows just how wide the gap is between the Dream and the guy who most people consider the best center in the NBA today.
As Hakeem explains the logic of his game, the Dream Shake that we all remember him for is revealed almost as one part of a process of keeping the defense completely off balance, one that starts with a jump hook and "ends" with playing mind games with opponents' understandings of gravity. This was a guy who approached his face up game as a positional shift from center to small forward. A guy whose footwork was far more thoughtful than instinctual. As such, the Dream Shake was one part of a repertoire that was as gracefully cerebral as that of any player who has ever played the paint.
Of course, it's unfair to compare Howard to an idealized vision of Olajuwon at his best. But as long as we are, though, let's take it a step further: what - if anything - could Howard's Magic learn from Olajuwon's championship Rockets teams?
Thus far, most of Dream Week has has focused on the Rockets' 1994 championship team. But it's the 1995 Rockets might be seen as the template for today's Magic - with the trade involving Clyde Drexler for Otis Thorpe, the championship trio of Drexler, Olajuwon, and Robert Horry seeems like a stronger comparison to the Magic's trio of Howard, Vince Carter, and Rashard Lewis.
At least on the surface, it would be reasonable to suggest that the Rockets pioneered the Magic's strategy of surrounding a dominant interior presence with three point shooters to space the floor, as John Hollinger described: "Tomjanovich...set a series of 3-point shooting role players around Olajuwon and relied on Hakeem's dominant low-post skills to do the rest."
The 1995 Rockets led the league in three point attempts, well ahead of the field in both the regular season and playoffs. In their classic Game 1 victory in the 1995 Finals, they combined with the Magic for a record-breaking number of three-point attempts, with Kenny Smith setting a record for threes in a Finals game at that time, including a clutch three to send the game into overtime.
That perimeter shooting prowess certainly contributed to the "Clutch City" nickname that the Rockets acquired (though is not, as some might assume, its origin) and has clearly shaped their legacy. However, sports legacies also have a tendency to congeal around those defining moments, washing away some of the fine grain details.
Just as the Howard video reminds us of the full nuance of Hakeem’s game, revisiting the 1995 Rockets reveals a far more dynamic and versatile team than the more methodical legacy we might normally credit a "4 out 1 in" team with. Tomjanovic described their strategy as simple - and to some extent it was.
"We wanna run every opportunity we get," Rudy Tomjanovic told Doug Collins at the time. "We want to post Hakeem or Clyde and when we get doubled we want to shoot the three."
For the Rockets, shooting threes was low on the list of priorities, somewhere behind scoring off turnovers, scoring in the early offense of rebounds, and posting Olajuwon or maybe even Drexler. Yet as "simple" as it was, part of pulling that off to win a championship was that there weren't really pure "specialists" in the Rockets' playoff rotation — skills were distributed evenly across the roster, meaning that all of those players standing around the perimeter were capable of doing more than launching threes.
But when comparing the 1995 playoff Rockets to the 2010 Orlando Magic, you have to start with the centers - not only were they the centerpieces of their team, but each was arguably the best center their respective eras.
The biggest similarity comes at the defensive end, as both centers anchor their team’s defense, primarily doing it with blocked shots. During his two championship winning seasons, Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 269.5 blocks each season. Dwight Howard’s block numbers weren’t as high as Hakeem’s, averaging 229.5 blocks during that span. However, they get their blocks in very different ways.
Hakeem patrols the paint, relying on good position. He doesn’t really get sucked out of the lane, and usually finds himself in perfect position. In the first clip from the 1995 Finals, Hakeem spends most of the possession denying Shaq, and when the ball handler attacks the lane, Hakeem simply slouches off of him.
In contrast, Howard relies more on his athleticism than positioning. He can quickly get from one spot to the other, and this leads to a ton of help side blocks. In the clip, he is following his man, but once Darko starts posting up, Howard gets in help position in time to send the shot flying out of bounds.
Both big men led their respective teams in scoring the years that we are looking at. But Hakeem was the focal point of the Rockets offense, while Dwight Howard was part of a balanced scoring effort. This showed in the way that the scoring was broken down. Olajuwon scored an average of 2094.5 points a year during his two title winning seasons (25.0% of the team’s points); Howard, 1563.5 points a year during the past two seasons (18.9% of the team’s points).
This difference in scoring responsibility is due in large part to the difference between what the two teams tried to establish. The Rockets pounded the ball inside to Hakeem whenever they got into their halfcourt offense. In 93-94 Olajuwon took 1694 shots or 21.2 attempts per game (most in the NBA, more than double the Rockets’ #2), and in 94-95 he attempted 1545 or 19.5 attempts per game (more than double the Rockets’ #2).
During the 1995 Finals, there were instances where the Rockets entered the ball into Hakeem 5-10 consecutive possessions, including a number of re-posts.
Howard doesn’t get nearly the offensive touches as Olajuwon did. Howard was actually 3rd on his team two years ago with 979 shots (or 12.4 a game). Last season, Dwight was 2nd on the Magic in shot attempts with 834 (or 10.2 attempts per game). A lot of it has to do with the fact that Olajuwon might be one of the best offensive centers ever while Howard is slightly below average currently, to put it lightly. However, another reason for Howard getting less shots is that the Magic focus more on three point shots. Dwight does get touches inside, but the clear purpose is to set up three point shots rather than to let Dwight Howard work in the post or set up another posting opportunity:
More specifically, the lack of reposts is a result of Howard's teammates spotting up for shots when the ball gets dumped inside instead of putting themselves in position to make a catch and dump the basketball back in the post (like how the Rockets do in the first clip).
Other than touches, another big difference between the two players was their technique in establishing post position. While Hakeem was a master at getting position to set up his moves before even touching the ball, Howard struggles to receive the ball in a position where he is comfortable scoring.
Look at where Olajuwon makes the catch on this post up: right outside the lane on the block, which is as close as you can get while avoiding the three second call. This gives Olajuwon the ability to make his move from a comfortable distance, and knock down turnaround jumpers (like the one in the above clip) with relative ease.
Howard on the other hand, makes his catches way too far away from the paint. This catch away from the lane is what really hinders his post game. When Howard makes his move, he is too far away from the basket, which puts him outside of his comfort zone to finish. He usually establishes very good initial post position, but he gives it up between the time when the ball is passed and when it arrives, mostly because he relaxes and stands tall instead of staying low and maintaining the position).
The final thing to look at when comparing Hakeem and Dwight’s post game is the actual post moves. . Hakeem's footwork and the vast array of post moves that he described to Howard made him nearly impossible to stop and are the major point of separation between the two.
One of the things that made Olajuwon so difficult to defend is that he could turn to either side and use either hand to finish at the rim. Rather than having a set direction or predetermined moves when he goes to receive the ball, he reads the defense exceptionally well. In the two above clips, Hakeem makes the catch in almost identical spots, but he turns towards the middle on one play and towards the baseline in another.
Beyond the post, Olajuwon's shooting ability made him a very tough guard. As described by Tomjanovic, Olajuwon wasn’t the only post threat – Drexler was a strong second option against many guards in the league. From 10-15 feet out, Olajuwon was more than capable of receiving kick outs in that "reverse" high-low game.
But it was Hakeem's fantastic turn around jumper along the baseline side makes him almost impossible to double. When he makes his catch along the baseline, the only place a double can come from is up top, basically forcing Olajuwon into one of his best moves.
While Olajuwon can select from a vast number of post moves to keep defenders off-balance, Howard basically has two that he relies upon heavily and perhaps more methodically than Olajuwon. The first, is a face up hook move that utilizes his athleticism and speed:
Howard's quickness allows him to be so successful with this move. He also has a pretty nice touch with his hook shot using either hand. Dwight’s second go-to move works off of the hook:
Dwight likes to act as if he is going to go towards the middle, then spin towards the baseline quickly (again using his speed to his advantage), and catch the defense off guard. However, the problem with this move is that it leads to more turnovers since Dwight is putting the ball on the floor more than he really should be:
Yet perhaps a more subtle difference between the two centers that had a significant impact on their teams' performances is their assist rate.
Olajuwon posted an assist rate of 17.2% during the 94-95 season, while Howard posted an assist rate of just 8.7% last season. Given the Magic’s inside-out approach, this might come as a surprise. Yet when Dwight kicks it out, he usually gets a "hockey assist" rather than a true assist:
In the above clip, Dwight Howard kicks the ball out to a player that swings it instead of shooting. So it is often the second pass with the defense recovering wildly that gets the assist on a wide open three.
In contrast, Hakeem was able to pick up assists a number of different ways.
On this kick out, Robert Horry pump fakes, takes one dribble, and knocks down the easy jumper, meaning an assist for Olajuwon. With the Rockets not relying as exclusively on finding three point shots as Orlando does in their 4-out, 1-in style, Hakeem has a number of assist opportunities on the inside.
Plays like that begin to explain what separated the Rockets from the Magic as a unit. Just as Olajuwon's passing ability was what made him such a dangerous first option in the post, what might define their supporting cast as unique is their all-around efficient ball movement.
Comparing point guards
The point guard tandem of Smith and Sam Cassell didn't necessarily do anything spectacular as playmakers. During the 1995 Finals, the point guard rarely penetrated past the three point arc, instead taking a few dribbles and quickly getting the ball either into the post or to another perimeter player. Even though Cassell definitely looked to drive to the basket more often, the role of the Rockets' point guards was generally limited to getting the ball up the court and initiating the offense.
However in not holding the ball long, the Rockets tandem also didn't make a whole lot of mistakes despite appearing less dynamic than the Magic's tandem of Jameer Nelson and Jason Williams. In addition, they made very good decisions with the ball as distributors and scorers, particularly with Smith's three point shooting. The result is that they were statistically efficient enough to fill the roles they played within the Rockets' system.
Even more interesting is that when the Rockets were at their best in the 1995 Finals, they were hardly the three point shooting half court team that their legacy suggests. In their most dominant runs beyond Game 1, this was a team that fed off their defense - both creating turnovers and Olajuwon controlling the defensive glass - and looked for fast break points and early offense before they even looked to post anyone up. In Game 2, they established a double digit lead without even making a three until Cassell hit one with 9:15 left in the second quarter.
Comparing complementary perimeter players
In addition to an emphasis on transition, part of what allowed them to rely less on their point guards once they got into the half court was outstanding ball movement, not only as the logical outcome of having a strong post passer in Olajuwon surrounded by shooters, but also due to very efficient ball handling and playmaking from Drexler, Mario Elie, and Robert Horry. Much more efficient, in fact, than the Orlando Magic's perimeter rotation.
Of note in the numbers above is that even though the Rockets' perimeter players had higher turnover percentages, their assist ratios were significantly higher at comparable positions, meaning that they offset mistakes with successful plays quite well.
Drexler was a much more efficient passer than we might remember him for, capable of both setting up others in transition and kicking out of the post efficiently. Carter most closely approximates Drexler, but while both are probably underappreciated passers Drexler was much more adept at using his athleticism to attack the offensive boards.
Although Horry has become much more well known for this clutch three point shooting, comparing him to Rashard Lewis as "stretch fours" reveals another rather wide gap. In addition to being a more efficient passer and offensive rebounder, Horry's athleticism on the defensive end drew some comparisons to Scottie Pippen. Regardless of how hindsight looks upon the Pippen comparison, Horry was far more dynamic on the wing than Lewis, especially on the defensive floor where he seemed to be everywhere.
The Magic's bench rotation might give them more depth around the perimeter than the Rockets had, but none of them approximate either Elie's playmaking efficiency or his free throw rate. And while Pietrus could certainly replicate what Elie brought on the defensive end, Elie was a better offensive rebounder than every Magic perimeter players except Matt Barnes.
It's also worth noting that one of the most significant reasons for their amazing playoff run as a sixth seed was significantly improved ball control. After finishing the season at 18th in turnover percentage (15%), they were 2nd in the league during the playoffs (11.5%) while also maintaining the league's second highest playoff pace at 92, not exactly markers of a deliberate half-court offense. During the Finals, their turnover percentage dropped to 8%.
The skillset of the complementary players around the two centers separates these two teams as much, if not more than, the individual differences in the post. The Magic simply don't approximate the passing ability of the Rockets as a unit. The Rockets' higher free throw rates at point guard and around the perimeter demonstrates a bit more aggression going to the basket than the Magic – free throws don't often occur from standing around the arc and waiting for kick-outs. With players all over the court capable of getting to the rim and passing to cutting players, the Rockets were not rigidly locked into an inside-out game. Their strength as a unit was to keep the defense off-balance by having remarkably diverse scoring options.
A better comparison?
This begins to bring some clarity to what the Magic lost in Hedo Turkoglu, if that wasn't already obvious. Although comparing Carter, Howard, and Lewis to Drexler, Horry, and Olajuwon appears to make more sense on the surface, the playmaking ability of Turkoglu - and even that of Courtney Lee - made that Magic team far more comparable as a unit in terms of being able to knock down perimeter shots and creating scoring opportunities with ball movement.
Looking forward to 2010-11, perhaps the even better vision for the current Magic might be that 1995 Magic team that challenged the Rockets - they were second in three point attempts during the playoffs that year and far more reliant on their three point shooting. Yet even with that comparison, a young Shaq was a much more effective offensive player than Howard. But if we're looking for attainable goals, it's a much more reasonable short-term bar to reach because Shaq was not near the passer or mid-range scorer of Olajuwon. But that still puts the pressure on Howard.
The clash of two teams with centers surrounded by perimeter scorers was effective because those two interior focal points were lethal scorers in ways that Howard is not yet. Perhaps one could interpret that in one of two ways – either Howard is not a player to utilize as a focal point or the NBA is just a very different place now. One thing’s for sure, though - he's not the only person who would have to step up his game to approximate the 1995 Rockets.