Dwight Howard’s arrival in Houston signals the arrival of one of the most dominant players in basketball, along with one of the most polarizing personalities in sports. Here at Red94, we are embracing the drama of Superman’s first season as a Rocket with a weekly column: “DwightLife.” This is the fourth installment.
The criticism of Dwight Howard’s free throw shooting–like watching the act itself–has become a bit tiresome. But this week, a broader critique of his offensive game came from TNT’s resident pair of low-post legends: Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.
Shaq’s eagerness to criticize Dwight Howard is nothing new, and the same holds true for Barkley. The pair of post-play legends took a couple minutes breaking down Howard’s flaws on the block, and most of their criticism was on point. But then comes the graphic. The handy infographic that shows that in games in which they played 30 minutes or more, Shaq took less than five field goal attempts just once, Barkely just four times and Dwight Howard…30 times.
So the topic of this week’s discussion is, what do we expect from Dwight Howard?
Shaq and Barkley’s criticism of Howard’s offense immediately evokes the biblical phrase, “First take the log out of your own eye.” Both players were clearly superior to Dwight Howard on offense. But offense is only half the game. Despite being the most physically dominant player ever, Shaq never led the league in rebounding, never led the league in blocks, and never won Defensive Player of the Year. Howard has achieved those goals 5 times, 2 times and 3 times, respectively. Barkley might prefer that we don’t talk about defense at all.
Surely neither of them want to talk about how the rule change about illegal defense had a massive impact on post play, or about how they both experienced their greatest offensive success before these rules (which have been in effect for the entirety of Howard’s career) were changed.
The conundrum of how to evaluate Howard becomes even more interesting this year when comparing the man to his peers.
Roy Hibbert is quickly becoming the en vogue player for hoopheads to value over Dwight Howard. The primary reason is that he has proven himself superior at Howard’s greatest skill, rim protection, as evidenced by NBA.com’s new player tracking data. Combine those number’s with Hibbert’s more aesthetically pleasing hook shot and his team’s success, and Hibbert looks like the center of the future, right? Of course! Just ignore the fact that Howard is a far superior rebounder.
(Let’s pause here and talk about these new rebounding numbers for a minute. Much has been made of valuing the Contested Rebound stat. It is a good indicator of which guys have the size and strength to pull down boards in a crowd. However, don’t let that stat overshadow the fact that rebounding chances per game are created by sound positioning, anticipation and good-old-fashioned hustle. The fight for those “contested” rebounds may be preempted when the other team knows they have already lost good rebounding position).
Giving Roy Hibbert the nod also requires ignoring offense. Howard currently edges Hibbert in True Shooting percentage (55.3 to 54.8), Assist percentage (7.7 to 7.1), and Turnover percentage (15.9 to 17.6), all while carrying a heavier offensive load (usage rate of 21.7 to 18.8) with the handicap of adjusting to a new offense and new teammates.
The one huge edge for Hibbert is his (probably unsustainable) 4.6 blocks per game. What all of these numbers lay bare is that despite all of Howard’s ballyhooed floundering in the post and at the line, he’s still the most complete center in the game.
As great an individual triumph as was Howard’s defeat of the Hack-A-Dwight against Denver this week (shooting 17-24 from the line), I’ll leave you with another box score line that best captures Dwight Howard’s contributions. After the New York game, the sporting world guffawed as Superman was held to just 5 points and forced into 5 turnovers by Andrea Bargnani. But look down the box score and there they are: 15 rebounds, four blocks, the win.
We’ve come to expect Howard to do everything, every night. We want him to be Bill Russell and Shaquille O’Neal every time the lights come on because, once in a while, he is. But most nights he’s just some combination of Dennis Rodman, Dikembe Mutombo and Patrick Ewing. Most night’s he’s not the greatest center of all time, just one of the greatest. Maybe we can learn to live with that.