April 12, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) walks off the court at the end of the game against the Golden State Warriors at the Staples Center. Lakers won 118-116. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Myths of Dwight Howard

Apr 10, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) dunks Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the Lakers season ended, Dwight Howard has been the first name to come up regarding the Lakers offseason moves. The Lakers have a chance to sign the 27-year-old center to a 5-year $118 million dollar contract. They have the financial advantage in retaining Howard, but the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets (and some say the Golden State Warriors, but they would have to do a sign and trade with the Lakers, where the Lakers would have to take back a large, bad contract…in other words, it’s not happening) are certainly in play.

The topic of Dwight Howard is incredibly polarizing in Los Angeles. Many believe the Lakers would be better off letting Howard walk this offseason. Those people feel that his offense is rudimentary and ineffective, his defense is overrated, his best days are behind him, he can’t handle the media pressure in Los Angeles, and the Lakers would be better off without Howard. Let’s take a look at all those claims.

1. Dwight isn’t a good post player.

This is one of the most parroted statements regarding Dwight. Dwight Howard is a good post player and a very effective one. He doesn’t have the arsenal of post moves like Tim Duncan, Roy Hibbert, Andrew Bynum, or Pau Gasol, but his moves are incredibly efficient. Just take a look at his career FG% – 57.7%. If you remove his first two seasons with Orlando (remember he came straight out of high school), he has never shot less than 57.3% from the field.

In Dwight’s first season with the Lakers, he averaged only 10.7 field goal attempts per game, his fewest since the 2009-10 season (the Orlando Magic made the Eastern Conference finals this season, one year removed from their Finals appearance). Keep in mind Dwight was recovering from back surgery the majority of the season. Look at his splits pre-All Star Break vs Post All Star Break:

By Month

GP

MIN

FGM-FGA

FG%

FTM-FTA

REB

AST

BLK

STL

PF

PTS

Pre All-Star

48

34.9

5.9-10.2

.578

4.4-9.0

11.8

1.5

2.3

1.1

3.6

16.3

Post All-Star

28

37.4

6.6-11.5

.578

5.1-10.4

13.6

1.3

2.6

1.2

4.1

18.4

Clearly Dwight Howard was starting to feel better later in the season. His shot attempts increased, his rebounds increased, his points, and minutes per game all increased. Also, in the 15 back-to-back games the Lakers had (versus games with 1, 2, or 3+ days of rest), Dwight averaged his fewest shot attempts, fewest free throw attempts, his lowest FG%, his fewest points and fewest offensive rebounds. When someone is recovering from a serious injury, those back-to-back games are the most difficult part of the season.

Those expecting Dwight to put up 25+ points per game misunderstand Dwight as a player. He can certainly put up monster scoring nights, but he has never averaged more than 22.9 points per game in his career. His style of play is centered around his defensive effort first and foremost, hence being a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year, with offense being secondary. He will never be a volume scorer, it just isn’t his game.

Let’s compare Dwight’s shot chart from his best offensive season, 2010-11 versus this season with the Lakers.

With the Orlando Magic 2010-11:

With the Lakers 2012-13:

Dwight still took the majority of his shots in close proximity to the basket. The largest difference was taking fewer shots from outside of the paint as well as making them at a much lower rate. In Orlando, Dwight taking a jumper was part of his game to open up the paint. With the Lakers, this is not a shot the team wants him to take. In 2010-11, Dwight’s best shooting percentage outside of the paint was from the right baseline at 50%, while everything else was sub 40%. The Lakers would much rather have Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant or even Pau Gasol take a jumper or set shot rather than have Dwight take that shot. The shot chart shows in Los Angeles, Dwight was playing a similar, albeit less efficient, game and clearly was not at his peak level (duh).

2. Dwight Howard’s defense is overrated

Dwight Howard is a 3-time defensive player of the year. Had he not gotten injured in Orlando, he could have won the award for a 4th time. This season in Los Angeles, Dwight struggled defensively at the beginning of the season, as he wasn’t able to exert as much effort due to his recovering back. At the end of the season Dwight looked much closer to his former self, contesting shots much more frequently. Dwight also led the league in rebounds and was 5th in blocks.

Dwight Howard appeared in 9 of the Lakers’ 10-top 5-man rotations. Kobe was the only player on the Lakers to appear more, making it onto all top 10 rotations. The Lakers scored 2.4 points more than their opponents with Dwight on the floor and scored 1.6 points fewer than their opponents with Dwight on the bench. Imagine what this could look like with a healthy season for Dwight.

3. Dwight’s best days are behind him

Let’s take a look at the (approximate) prime seasons for some of the great centers in the NBA.

Shaq’s prime was from 1997-2003. That puts his age at 25-31 for his prime.

Hakeem Olajuwon’s prime was from 1989-1996. That puts his age at 26-33 for his prime.

David Robinson’s prime was from 1989-1995. That puts his age at 24-30 for his prime.

Moses Malone’s prime was from 1978-1985. That puts his age at 23-30 for his prime.

Wilt Chamberlain’s prime was from 1959-1966. That puts his age at 23-30 for his prime.

Kareem-Abdul Jabaar’s prime was from 1969-1977. That puts his age at 22-30 for his prime.

Bill Russell’s prime was from 1956-1966. That puts his age at 22-31.

Dwight Howard’s best stretch for his career was from 2007-2012. That puts his age at 22-26 for his best stretch.

Historically, for Dwight’s best days to be completely behind him would be unprecedented. No other big man ended his prime before the age of 30. I will concede that none of these other players had major back surgery during their prime. With modern medicine, I would be shocked if Dwight’s injury ended his run of being an elite player. Remember, Dwight still led the NBA in rebounds with the back injury. Rumors of Dwight’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

4. Dwight can’t handle the media pressure

This is an unquantifiable statement. Dwight Howard handled the Los Angeles media very well his first season in LA, not allowing his free agency to hang over the season. Given the choice, I’m sure Dwight would take last year’s media in Los Angeles over the media in Orlando for his final season there. Also keep in mind, most of the media circus around Dwight Howard has been contract related, not play related. When Dwight is healthy and has a contract, he has never been a media distraction.

5. The Lakers would be better off without Dwight Howard

After next season, Steve Nash will be the only person on the Lakers under contract. The Lakers will literally have to build a brand new team in the 2014-15 season. The Lakers can dream of LeBron James coming to Los Angeles and donning the purple and gold, but putting all your eggs in that basket will lead to disappointment. Realistically, the Lakers won’t be able to lure a better building block than Dwight Howard to Los Angeles before that offseason. Without Dwight Howard the Lakers are a favorable free agent destination, with Dwight Howard and enough cap space to sign a max free agent, Los Angeles becomes a dream destination. If Dwight Howard leaves, the Lakers will have to start scrambling with Plan B, hoping to find the next franchise player in 2014-15. In the NBA, you can’t risk losing a franchise player for the hope of landing a yet-to-be-determined franchise player at a later time. That will get you fired quickly if you’re an executive.

Excluding last season, since the 2007-08 NBA season, Dwight Howard has finished 7th or higher every year in MVP voting. Because Dwight Howard had a down year, by his standards, columnists are quick to dismiss Dwight’s future career (unless he’s going to Houston and then it suddenly brightens up…hmm). These are the same columnists who defend Derrick Rose for sitting out a season so he can make sure he is 100% before he comes back. Dwight was not awarded this same courtesy by the media. Dwight could have easily sat out a couple months of season to recover, but he sucked it up and played.

In short, if Dwight Howard resigns, the Lakers have a real direction. If Howard chooses to leave, the Lakers will have an uncertain future ahead of them. They won’t have a building block in place for the future. It is easy to dismiss this concern with the response, “But they’re the Lakers.” It is true, the Lakers have had unprecedented success and are almost always competitive. But nothing lasts forever. The Lakers are in a new era, lacking the steady hand of Jerry Buss to guide the way. Relying on the past to keep the Lakers relevant in the future is a dangerous proposition. With Howard, the Lakers know they will be a playoff team for years to come, almost regardless of whom else is on the roster. That is an opportunity you can’t pass up.

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