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Is Dwight Howard underrated?

By saying a basketball player (or anything, for that matter) is underrated, nothing happens other than an indictment of someone else’s opinion. It’s a term that points out how dumb or ignorant the majority is, even though proving something so general is nearly impossible and hardly worth the time or energy.

Despite this article’s title, I won’t be writing about whether Dwight Howard is underrated or overrated. But after hearing a few NBA pundits, writers, and commentators speak their mind, and taking part in several first-hand conversations at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last weekend, it became fairly obvious that either people aren’t watching Howard play basketball, find it difficult to praise him in a season where so many younger frontcourt talents are rising (Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, etc.), or don’t like him for reasons that have nothing to do with his performance on a basketball court.

Picking apart the words someone says on television or on a podcast makes me uncomfortable because often times those thoughts aren’t fully formed. They’re gut reflexes to questions being asked on the spot. Key statistics aren’t at the ready, hours of film study can’t be done in the five minutes someone has to cover a topic. Sometimes the entire discussion is framed around a specific narrative that would be crushed by the “right” answer.

This article, then, is my attempt to give credit where it’s due by highlighting a player whose reputation—both positive and negative—precedes everything he does on the court.

“Howard still has no post-moves.” “He isn’t as dominant defensively.” “He was one of the five best players in the league four years ago, but he isn’t as good now, so how can he still be a top five player?” Smart followers of the league know that first point is bogus, and that Howard’s still a game-changing defensive presence who plays hard 35 minutes a game. Is he one of the five best players in the league? That’s still an argument worth having.

Citing per game statistics don’t really work. Howard is averaging fewer minutes than in any season since his rookie year. The per 36 numbers paint a brighter picture, and his advanced numbers (included PER, True Shooting percentage, usage rate, and all the rebounding figures) are right around his career averages.

But one of the most interesting things we do as fans and observers is constantly compare a player to his former self instead of his present-day peers. According to Basketball-Reference, Howard currently ranks in the top 20 for the following categories: minutes, field goals made, free-throws made, free-throws attempted, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, blocks, points, field goal percentage, PER, True Shooting percentage, Effective field goal percentage, the three rebound rates, defensive rating, defensive win shares, win shares, and win shares per 48 minutes.

Many players in the NBA have their on-court development unfairly handcuffed to their natural growth as a person. Howard is Exhibit A.

But in the end, words like “overrated” and “underrated” bow at the altar of “reality.” And in “reality,” this season Howard is easily the best center in the NBA. If you’d like to argue for Joakim Noah (one of my favorite players in the league), here are their side-by-side statistics. Keep in mind the Houston Rockets are one of the five best teams in basketball, play in the Western Conference (tougher competition), and have won 16 of their last 21 games (with losses coming against the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, and Los Angeles Clippers).

The number one narrative associated with Howard is his relationship with Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon, and how now that he’s in direct contact with both legends on a daily basis, his post moves should flourish because those guys were two of the best post scorers in basketball history.

This line of thinking always struck me as odd. It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode, where Jerry wants the ever pathological George to teach him how to pass a lie detector test. George’s response: It’s like saying to Pavarotti, “Teach me to sing like you.”

Obviously, Olajuwon and McHale give Howard tips and advice—how to counter his defender’s movement, the need to attack quickly before a double can arrive, etc.—but fluid post-play isn’t transmittable. If I spend an entire year following Stephen King around Maine, drinking coffee at his side while he burrows into his next novel, peppering him with question after question, there’s a chance my writing will improve. King might make me see things differently.

But as soon as I fly back to LA, sit down at my desk and start typing away on a blank Microsoft Word document, there’s little to no chance my work will be as good or better than “The Stand.” Now or 10 years from now. There’s only one Stephen King.

Does Howard move like Olajuwon or McHale? No. There’s a great chance nobody ever will again. But he’s gotten noticeably better as the season’s gone on, both scoring against single coverage and passing out of double teams.

Howard has several moves now, where he used to only have one or two. His baseline drop step is ballet compared to last year’s rusty gate.

He’s powerful, too, turning either shoulder into a snow plow and clearing out whoever’s standing between him and the rim. This power is paired with coordinated explosion possessed by zero players his size. Howard’s first step is a thing of beauty, and he’s comfortable facing an opponent up on the wing, then attacking baseline (instead of drifting towards the free-throw line, which he still does from time to time).

The entire defense is on pins and needles whenever Howard catches the ball with his back to the basket. He puts opposing big men in foul trouble, and draws three second violations regularly. In February, Howard averaged 22.8 points and 12.9 rebounds per game. He shot 65.4% from the floor and 60.7% (hooray!) from the free-throw line. Those numbers are truly devastating if sustained the rest of the season.

As SB Nation’s Drew Garrison wonderfully pointed out earlier this week, Howard is one of the five most efficient scorers near the basket, but his post numbers, courtesy of mySynergySports, won’t blow your mind away (he’s ranked just outside the top 100). Explaining why the eye test doesn’t align with Howard’s 0.76 points per possession average is difficult, but silly turnovers and poor entry passes earlier in the season might begin to explain things.

Howard’s work elsewhere is dominant and unquantifiable. The attention he draws as rolling thunder through the lane after setting a high screen remains huge for Houston’s three-point shooters. He’s the third most efficient roll man in the league, the second most efficient scorer when catching a pass on a cut, and the fifth most efficient scorer in transition.

Howard still gets in trouble trying to make a “home run” pass when a double team comes and hitting the nearest open man will do, but he’s more than capable of connecting on cross-court daggers—Patrick Beverley appreciates this more than anyone else on the planet.

This play happens at least once a game: Beverley enters the ball to the post, then cuts along the baseline to the opposite corner, but his man sticks to Howard.

See Beverley on the left-hand side? Waving his arm to get Howard’s attention while Mario Chalmers tries to get the steal? A second after this photo was taken, Howard flipped the ball across the court, and Beverley calmly sunk a wide open three.

Houston scores 109.3 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the court (second best in the league) and allow 101.6 (seventh best in the league) on the other end. Given the strengths and weaknesses of Howard’s teammates (most notably the gaping holes on the perimeter left open by Chandler Parsons, James Harden, and Jeremy Lin) that second number is extremely impressive. He probably won’t win Defensive Player of the Year, but only two or three players are more deserving.

Opponents shoot 47.8% on 9.2 field goal attempts per game at the rim when Howard is the closest defender, per SportVU. That number isn’t better than Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka, or Andrew Bogut, but it’s still very good.

And unlike most bigs, Howard is marvelous shuffling his feet against smaller, quicker players on the perimeter whenever he’s forced to switch. He’s stifled Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, and Arron Afflalo. Here he is on Wade.

Dwight Howard isn’t a flawless basketball player, but for reasons that (I suspect) have little to do with basketball, the perception of his play hasn’t been very honest this year. He’s the best center in basketball, the most irreplaceable two-way cog on a title contender. Would the Rockets trade him for anyone not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant? Probably not, because they’re smart enough to know exactly what they have.

Michael Pina regularly contributes for Red94 and CelticsHub (ESPN’s TrueHoop Network), Sports On Earth, Bleacher Report, and The Classical. His writing can be found here. Follow him @MichaelVPina

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