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No, Dwight Howard is Not "Properly Rated," Despite Bill Simmons' Claims

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Just in time for the 2011 NBA trade deadine, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons has published his annual NBA Trade Value list, ranking the top 50 tradeable assets in the league. He ranks Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard second on the list--meaning the Magic wouldn't trade him for the 48 players below him, but might for the one player ahead of him, the Miami Heat's LeBron James--and has some provocative comments about Orlando's franchise cornerstone.

Drawing on a concept from Chuck Klosterman, the pop-culture critic whose Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs remains one of my favorite reads, Simmons contends Howard is "properly rated" in the same way "The Social Network, Albert Pujols, Rihanna" and a host of other things are. Simmons explains:

He's one of the best players in the league, but you'd never make the case that he's the best. He's one of the most valuable players in the league, but you'd never say he's most valuable. We don't take him for granted, and we don't think he's overrated.

And, in the line that prompted this post, which now nears 1800 words:

He's Dwight Howard: [...] someone who's very very very very very very good but not quite great.

"Not quite great." Lord. Where do I start?

I don't take issue with where Simmons places Howard on his list, and I agree with is assertion that "we're constantly underrating" James. Nonetheless, I can't get on board with the idea that Howard is "properly rated," even as the league's top center. No, I contend he's underrated.

Howard's brilliance at the defensive end, which has resulted in his winning the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards, hasn't surprised or rankled anyone who watches and understands the game closely. About this point there is little debate. Howard is the league's foremost defensive presence, although one can argue Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett has at least matched him on that end this year.

We should move on, then, to discuss Howard's work on offense, which not enough people properly appreciate, in my estimation. Howard keys everything the Magic do on that side of the ball; spreading the floor with four three-point shooters wouldn't matter a bit were it not for the threat of Howard having his way inside. Few players in the league can handle him in single-coverage, and even the ones who once had his number find it slipping.

Take the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins, for instance. Stout, physical, and intelligent, Perkins used to be able to uproot Howard from the block and leverage him out two or three feet, forcing him to work further away from the basket than he's accustomed to and giving his help defenders plenty of room and time to bother Orlando's behemoth. In the first and third games of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, Perkins played a huge role in limited Howard to a combined 20 points on 6-of-20 shooting from the field.

In the final three games of that series, in which Orlando delayed elimination twice, Howard scored 81 points on 31-of-48 shooting from the floor. In their next meeting, which took place on Super Bowl Sunday, Howard scored 28 on 10-of-20 from the floor in a Celtics vitory.

What about the Los Angeles Lakers' decorated duo of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol? They held Howard to just 15.4 points per game, on 48.8 percent shooting, in the 2009 NBA Finals as L.A. coasted to a 4-1 series win. In the regular season that year, Howard averaged 20.6 points on 57.2 percent shooting, so the Bynum/Gasol pairing indeed limited him to well below his established offensive capabilities.

In three regular-meetings since those Finals, though, Howard has torched the Lakers for 70 points in 114 minutes, shooting 65.9 percent from the field. Indeed, the players who used to stymie Howard now cannot stop him.

The same goes for the rest of the league. This season, Howard has ended 27.2 percent of Orlando's possessions via either a shot attempt, free throw attempt, or turnover; he's doing so with a True Shooting mark of 61.1 percent. In the last five seasons, only Amar'e Stoudemire, Manu Ginobili, and Dirk Nowitzki have matched those benchmarks. Notably, none of those three players can claim the same sort of defensive impact Howard makes.

There's a tendency in the media, I think, not to take Howard seriously on the offensive end. True, his low-post moves used to be pretty robotic and elementary, and he continues to rankle a lot of hoops observers with his continued struggles at the foul line; his 58.4 percent mark from there would stand as the worst of his career if the season ended today.

But a lot of the criticism for his offense is simply unwarranted, unfair, or outdated. There's room for improve even more with his back to the basket, sure. He'd be the first person to tell you as much. But I come back to a point Magic television color analyst Matt Guokas often makes: when we say Howard's post game is unrefined, to whom are we comparing him? Consider all the league's back-to-basket players. Now try naming more than, say, three who have better post skills.

A look at Synergy Sports Technology data supports this idea. Here are some facts:

  • Howard ends a possession via post-up 12.7 times per game. This figure easily leads the league among players who have posted up at least 200 times, of whom there are 23; LaMarcus Aldridge, at 9.5 post-ups per game, ranks second. Indeed, the distance between Howard and the second-ranked Aldridge is greater than the distance between Aldridge and the the 10th-ranked Darko Milicic.

  • At 0.9152 points per post-up, Howard ranks eighth in the league in efficiency.

  • Howard's post-ups produce scores 49.3 percent of the time, fourth in the league.

  • Howard's average of 12.7 post-ups per game is the highest in the league since the 2006/07 season, when Yao Ming (a whopping 18.3) and Shaquille O'Neal (14.1) topped that number. Yao's post-up efficiency (0.9689 points per possession) throttles Howard's, but O'Neal's figure (0.9205) isn't too far removed.

In essence, Howard ranks as the most efficient, high-volume, back-to-basket player in five seasons, when Yao and O'Neal topped them in their prime and just-past-prime years. Further, those two played in only 48 and 40 games, respectively, that season.

Based on these data, I believe it's fair to conclude Howard is enjoying the best offensive season of any duraable back-to-basket player in recent NBA history. This is in addition to his dominance as a one-on-one and help defender, and as a rebounder.

Some aspects of his offense are properly rated. He's a bit too turnover prone, particularly when he brings the ball low after a rebound or on a drive to the basket, to say nothing of his numerous, needless offensive fouls for shoving. He ought to shoot free-throws more accurately than he does, as I reject the belief that he's simply hopeless at the line, doomed to shoot in the high-fifties every season.

But as far as everything else goes? We have not "properly rated" Howard's offense. We have severely, woefully, shamefully underrated it.

With that said, I think Simmons is fair to rate Howard behind James. Most sane fans would do the same, to to claim Howard is "underrated," and not "properly rated," is, on some level, tantamount to saying Howard should top Simmons' list.

That's not what I'm getting at, though, because I agree with Simmons that James is terribly underrated despite the exposure the media give him, in addition to the exposure he brings upon himself.

My point is that James and Howard are so far away from the proverbial field, at least in terms of affecting basketball games, that no one really stands a chance of challenging them. Look at players three through five on Simmons' list.

  • Kevin Durant scores a ton, is a terrific teammate by any account, and is emerging as a rebounder. Yet he does not shoot the three-pointer well, and has yet to make the sort of defensive impact we might expect from a player with his considerable gifts.

  • Criticizing Derrick Rose, who has what John Hollinger has termed a huge "Fanboy Army," will automatically earn me at least three unkind emails; thankfully, Bethlehem Shoals expressed a lot of problems I happen to have with the young point guard in a brilliant essay for GQ. The dude shares a backcourt with Keith Bogans and hasn't had his frontcourt combination of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah together for even 10 games yet, but the Bulls have essentially wrapped up no worse than the East's third playoff series due to his fantastic play. He's made strides defensively, has a respectable (36.2 percent) three-pointer, and scores a point for every 90 seconds he's on the court.

    Still, he can't, by the very nature of his position, affect as many possessions defensively as Howard can. And Howard, despite his positional limits--as a center, he can't bring the ball up and pass it to himself, remember--opens up the Magic's offense in ways that at least approach Rose's playmaking.

  • And Blake Griffin? He's for real, clearly, averaging 22.8 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists as a 21-year-old. Fewer players get so good so quickly, and he's on a Hall-of-Fame pace. No question about it.

    And yet he blocks a shot once every two games. He has yet to establish himself as a defender on Howard's level. He probably has it in him to do so, and if he ever gets that aspect of his game together, he'll join James and Howard in the ranks of the league's wrecking balls. Until then, he's slightly less powerful than those two.

We ought to be able to agree, like most reasonable folks, that James and Howard are, in some order, the league's top two players, and that it's not close. My hope here is that we've at least got a better appreciation for how truly great Howard is, particularly as a low-post scorer.