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Validating Dwight Howard's Worth On Defense

A little over a week ago, Charley Rosen of Fox Sports wrote an article highlighting some of the better defenders in the NBA. Rosen listed the usual characters - Ron Artest, Shane Battier, and others - and had the following say about Dwight Howard.

Dwight Howard does block shots, but in his eagerness to do so, smart teams (like the Lakers) can run their offense in such a way that he's lured out of shot-blocking position. Plus, opposing centers who are able to face up and go can usually find a driveable lane. I seem to recall that Pau Gasol ate Howard's lunch in June. Why, then, was Howard selected as the NBA's best defender? For the same reason that Larry Hughes was named to the First All-Defensive team in 2005. Numbers.


In truth, even though Hughes led the league in steals that season (2.89 per game), he was strictly a reckless, feckless gambler and lost more gambles than he won. By the same token, Howard's leading the NBA in blocks is by no means indicative of his true defensive value.


As an example of how misleading blocked shots stats really are, I always cite Dave DeBusschere, who — by my lights — was the best defensive power forward ever. DeBusschere was still at the top of his game when he retired after the 1973-74 season, during which he averaged 18.1 points per game (second-best mark of his career). That season also marked the first time that blocked shots became an official statistic, and he was only credited with 0.55 swats per game. So while Howard is proficient at one aspect of defense, he has a long way to go in other areas.

I, politely, disagree with some of Rosen's points and figured I'd go out of my way to dispute the variety of claims he's making towards the Defensive Player of the Year.


Click after the jump to read my response.


It appears that the author is dampening and/or discrediting Howard's defensive talent, simply because an elite offensive player (who led the Association in Offensive Rating this past season) such as Gasol played well in the 2009 NBA Finals - ignoring the fact that Gasol, arguably, had a better offensive performance against the Denver Nuggets in the 2009 Western Conference Finals, when taking a look at the numbers. Nevertheless, Gasol playing well in the Finals speaks more to his impressive skill, offensively - he's an All-Star, a champion, and a great player. To pinpoint one matchup in making an argument against Howard seems superfluous. 


Why was Howard chosen as the league's best defender? The mainstream media mainly referred to outdated statistics, such as blocks per game and rebounds per game, noticed that Howard was the leader in both categories, and figured that was good enough to rationalize giving him the award. I'm writing in jest, somewhat. 


Howard was chosen because of the numbers, sure, but there are better ways of determining how good or bad he performed as a defender. Granted, as I (and others) write repeatedly, advanced defensive metrics are a work in progress, but they do paint a decent picture in revealing the true abilities of a player, defensively. 


Yes, Howard leading the NBA in blocks is not indicative of his true defensive value. Instead, looking at defensive adjusted plus/minus, net defensive plus/minus, opponent PER, noting Howard's influence on the Orlando Magic's defensive efficiency, and still referring to blocks per game and rebounds per game will suffice.


First, defensive adjusted plus/minus, net defensive plus/minus, and opponent PER.


Dwight Howard
adj. defensive plus/minus -1.09
opponent PER vs. C's 15.8
net defensive plus/minus -1.1


It's worth pointing out that Howard's numbers don't jump off the page, but there's a reason for that. Marcin Gortat, the backup for Howard, is an above-average defender in his own accord. As such, Gortat's respective plus/minus stats are going to encroach on Howard's respective plus/minus stats. If, for instance, one were to place in a replacement-level player (average, in Layman's terms) and take out Gortat to backup Howard, there would be a notable difference in the defensive statistics. As for the opponent PER figure, it is average. This certainly lends credence to the notion that Howard still has a little bit of work to do on his individual defense, though his help defense is excellent, etc.


Insert random Charles Barkley quote (via Sports Radio Interviews):

Gortat might be one of the most underrated players in the NBA. That tells you how good a player he is that they’re gonna pay him that type of money to sit on the bench. I watched him play a few times but to get to watch him every day game during the playoffs; I think he’s one of the ten best centers in the NBA.

Second, noting Howard's influence on the Orlando Magic's defensive efficiency.


Cue in Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus:

First Team and Every Play Counts Defensive Player of the Year - Dwight Howard, Orlando. While Lewis deserves credit for his play and Stan Van Gundy is a brilliant defensive architect, ultimately the fact that the Magic leads the league in Defensive Rating comes down primarily to the efforts of Howard patrolling the paint. He is a world-class shot-blocker and rebounder who has become arguably the league's most intimidating force. With his combination of size, strength, speed and quickness, Howard is almost impossible to neutralize defensively.

This is why Howard is regarded as an elite defender, because of his ability to make his teammates around him better on the defensive side of the ball. Quantitative analysis can only do so much in revealing the type of impact a player can have. In this case, Howard's ability to deter opponents from attacking the basket (as a result, limiting opportunities at the free-throw line) is one example among many examples that can't be immediately recorded on the stat sheet. Granted, the Magic have several players that are underrated defenders (like Rashard Lewis) but at the end of the day, the team's success defensively begins and ends with Howard. It always has, it always will.


Third, referring to blocks per game and rebounds per game.


It's relatively well-known that Howard became the fifth player in NBA history to lead the league in blocks and rebounds this past season (joining a list that includes Hakeem Olajuwon, Ben Wallace, and others). Impressive. However, what isn't being referred to is block percentage and total rebound percentage - two metrics that measure the percentages of blocks and rebounds accumulated by a player while he is on the floor. In essence, a more accurate stat used to decipher how good or bad an individual is blocking the ball and rebounding the ball. 


As a result of doing some number-crunching via Basketball-Reference's nifty 'player season finder' tool, if you click on the link, you'll notice that Howard is among impressive company - specifically, players that have tallied a 5.0+ BLK%, 20.0+ TRB% in more than 1500 minutes played in a year. It's worth noting that blocks didn't become an official statistic in the Association until the 1973-1974 season, so legendary players like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and others are missing from the list, but even then, the data shows how special of a year Howard had. 


Blocks per game is a misleading stat; blocks percentage is not a misleading stat.


By the way, DeBusschere as the best defensive power forward, ever? Really?


Another topic, another day.


Oh, did I mention Dwight Howard is the youngest player ever to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award?