The Stats Say: Dwight Howard is not yet back to his normal self

Monday’s headline was that Dwight Howard’s health has improved dramatically since joining the Rockets. “His health is 100 percent different,” said Kevin McHale. Dwight added, “I’m moving a lot better. I’m going to get balls that I couldn’t get last season.”

If Dwight Howard is healthy, his stats aren’t yet showing it. According to PER and WS/48, Houston is so far getting the L.A. version of Dwight (actually: slightly worse) rather than the Orlando version of Dwight.

Dwight Howard through week 1.5_2013-14

(Note: his stats improved modestly after the Portland game, but are still around L.A.-level. You can always view the latest data here.)

Maybe it’s just early. Maybe Dwight is just working out the kinks with new teammates and a new system. Maybe one more game like the 17-point, 26-rebound outburst will bump up his stats to Orlando-level.

On the other hand, maybe he really isn’t healthy. Maybe he never will be. Consider this quote from Kevin McHale in the same article:

Last July, when we got him, he was not healthy. When we did a physical after we signed him, I sat down with our training staff and they were all like, ‘Oh boy.’ He had a huge discrepancy in his strength in his right leg and his left leg. His glutes and his hamstrings were really weak and his flexibility was completely … funky.

McHale’s intention with this quote was to emphasize how much Dwight’s health has improved over the past four months, but count me skeptical. If Dwight’s health was that bad 440 days after his herniated disc surgery, can we really expect him to be back to normal now, a summer later? If Dwight’s health was that bad 440 days after surgery, can we expect Dwight to ever return to his normal, superhuman self, or is the L.A. version of Dwight the new normal?

Bill Simmons, our greatest NBA historian, is adamant that once big men start breaking down, they don’t get better. And this is not just one of his pet theories: it might be his most frequently stated claim, and he states it with unnerving conviction and solemnity. I would gladly dig into the data to test the hypothesis if only it were stated in a testable way. (I don’t know what it means for a player to “start breaking down.”) Simmons provided some of his own statistical evidence here (see ‘Reality No. 5’), but it isn’t awfully convincing. For what it’s worth, the godfather of NBA geekery, Wayne Winston, briefly stated a similar argument here (begins around the 6-minute mark) when discussing his predictions for the 2013-14 Rockets.

Theories aside, there’s also the eyeball test. I watched games two, three, and four very closely, and I was not seeing what looked like a healthy Dwight. I was seeing a Dwight who was trailing far behind in transition, who was dawdling under the basket on both ends of the floor (even getting multiple defensive three-second violations), and who was getting caught by the rim on dunk attempts. I was seeing a Dwight who was rarely leaving his feet to grab rebounds or challenge shots, and who seemed reluctant to even raise his arms. (Note: this post was drafted before the Portland game, and I thought Dwight looked a bit better and more athletic in that game.)

Important reminder: The L.A. version of Dwight is still extremely valuable and probably worth max dollars. The L.A. version of Dwight is still one of the best two or three centers in the league. With the L.A. version of Dwight, the Rockets can contend.

Just imagine what they could do with the Orlando version of Dwight.

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