Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard is a four-time All-Star, a two-time All-NBA first team selection, an Olympic gold medalist, and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He's either the best or second-best center in the world, depending on whether you classify Tim Duncan as a center or power forward. And he's only 24, which seems to indicate his best is yet to come. So believe me, I know how off-putting it might seem that I think he's underrated. But I do.
The criticisms most often levied at Howard are, in no particular order, that he is unskilled offensively and too mentally weak to lead a team to a championship. I take issue with both, because they're outdated, false, and reductive.
It's true that Howard's year got off to a rough start. He wasn't as sharp defensively as he was in prior seasons, arriving late on rotations and giving silly fouls as a consequence. And the addition of Vince Carter has robbed him of some touches, so his year-long numbers (18.5 points and 10.1 shots versus 20.6 and 12.4 a year ago) are down. So I guess I can understand, to a certain extent, how a national columnist could look at them and assert that Howard's as good as he's going to be, and then look at the off-court stories about him--that he filmed some movies and commercials over the summer, that he refuses to wage war with Shaquille O'Neal through the media, that he updates his Twitter account regularly--and conclude that he's lazy or not fulfilling his potential.
But there's a problem with that line of thinking, which fails to account for new developments in Howard's game. Spare me the nonsense about how he only scores on dunks and putbacks. He can set up on the left block, against anyone, and drive through the lane for a righty hook, for instance. Or he can counter with a drop-step to the baseline and finish with his left. Or he can face-up, jab right, drive left, and improvise from there. Or he can drive into the lane, stop, fake, and either draw the foul or loft in a hook. Or... you see where I'm headed here. His offense is a bit more nuanced than some people might think. Magic color analyst Matt Guokas touched on that point during a recent telecast when he wondered in comparison to whom does Howard's game look unrefined.
And for all the bluster about his lack of creativity, he's become an adept passer as well. Coach Stan Van Gundy praised Howard's decision-making against the Cleveland Cavaliers' double-teams on Sunday, saying "he was absolutely terrific" despite the fact that the Cavs "defended him pretty well." J.J. Redick, the recipient of one of Howard's two assists on the day and a teammate of his for four seasons, said "he's really gotten better at finding the open guy" when double-teamed. You can read more praise for Howard from Van Gundy and Carter at this link.
Consider that he's averaging 22.4 points per game on 59.7% from the floor and 17.6 shooting possessions since Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which perhaps not coincidentally marks his first game after and undermanned and undersized Portland Trail Blazers squad held him to 11 points on 4-of-7 from the floor. I'm not positive that Van Gundy had those particular stats in mind when he said, "he's playing as well as anyone in the league," but I do believe they support that argument.
So he is indeed getting more touches, and doing more with them, than his overall numbers suggest. Moreover, he's faring well against teams and defenders who used to give him fits. Scoring with ease against the L.A. Lakers' Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, who limited him to 15.4 points on 48.8% shooting in last year's NBA Finals, en route to scoring 24 points on MLK Jr. Day. Driving around Boston's Kendrick Perkins, instead of through him, on January 28th on his way to 19 points on 8-of-12 from the floor. Exploding for 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting against Dallas' Brendan Haywood last Friday; when asked about the newly acquired Haywood's defensive success against Howard, Van Gundy quipped, "Yeah, Dwight had 29, 15 [rebounds], and 5 [blocks]. So he held him to 29." Scoring 22 points and drawing 9 fouls against O'Neal on Sunday, and doing so much damage to the Cavaliers' defense (despite his 7-of-15 shooting) that they had to send a double-team to cover him rather than let O'Neal cover him one-on-one.
Conspicuously absent in the previous paragraph are his rebounding and blocked-shot stats from the same stretch, because I wanted to highlight his scoring. But here they are: 14.4 boards, 3.7 blocks, and countless other shots altered. The last player to average 22, 14, and 3 on 59% shooting over the course of an entire season was Artis Gilmore, who did so in 1972 for the Kentucky Colonels. Yes, that's an ABA team, which means the numbers Howard's posting in this stretch would be unprecedented over the course of an entire NBA season. But sure, he's not good enough to anchor a championship team.
What I'm getting at is that Howard's new offensive skills aren't evident in the stat sheet. And because that stat sheet is the only thing some national writers consult before bemoaning his lack of development, they write misinformed articles which are further disseminated and accepted by the general public. There's nothing we can do to change that, because, after all, haters gonna hate. But we can at least make a better effort to understand how Howard has grown during his 5-plus years in the league.
When it comes to Howard's lack of an offensive game, don't believe the hype.