A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Dwight Howard: Not the only reason the Magic have been a great defensive team

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Washington Wizards v/s Orlando Magic February ...

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It seems no-one can doubt that Dwight Howard is the best defensive player in the NBA. But just how much is Howard responsible for the Magic’s perennially top 5 DRTG rankings?

For many, it’s all Howard. Because it appears nobody other member of the Magic is defensively significant. The Magic won 59 games and made the NBA Finals with Jameer Nelson, Courtney Lee, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis in the starting lineup. Nelson is an undersized PG, Lee a rookie at the time, Turkoglu is one of the NBA’s slowest SFs, and Lewis is an out of position SF. Thus the Magic dominating defensively with that team is quite a feat on Howard’s end.

But not so fast. Defense is a tricky subject. Half of good defense can be from the system. The following choices can be made. If a team holds back on offensive rebounding, they can all but guarantee transition defense against the opponent’s counterpunch. If everyone is sent to the defensive glass instead of a player or two leaking out as an outlet, defensive rebounding and the ability to close off space to prevent putback points can improve. Thus a team can take off a few points from an opponent by strategy alone. But it also comes at the cost of those easy points offensively. If a team wants to make it a halfcourt game defensively, they’ll probably be forced to make it one offensively as well.

Furthermore, a coach can make his defensive mark by emphasizing it with minutes and energy distribution. Players can be instructed to give it their all defensively and catch their breath offensively, instead of the other way around. Specialists playing entirely on one side of the ball can get more minutes than on other teams. This builds an identity of defense first basketball.

I believe what can be referred to as Larry Brown and Scott Skiles’ style of slow, defense first basketball can be replicated by nearly any coach in the NBA. They are not using a secret playbook of defensive sets. Most of the time it’s just chosen against, by the teams who lack halfcourt talent. When a team with strong halfcourt talent play this style, you get squads like the mid decade Spurs and Mavericks or present day Bulls, who look much better doing it because of the talent to score in a slow paced game.

What does this have to do with the Magic? Because Stan Van Gundy has the Magic play a defensive style of basketball strategically. Magic basketball is halfcourt basketball. Offensively they’ll walk it up and run a set to get a shot inside or outside. Defensively they rarely give up transition points, most of those 3pt shooters are close enough to their end when a shot goes up that they’re already set up against the counterpunch. Howard deserves a lot of credit for the Magic’s defense, but systematically they are also doing everything right defensively by slowing the game down and removing all “easy” fastbreak and putback points for each side. This favors their roster.

However, what this means is that Howard perhaps deserves more credit for the Magic’s consistently top 10 ORTGs. The Magic’s halfcourt offense has usually been excellent thanks to a plethora of 3s, often created by Howard collapsing the defense in the post or off the pick and roll. Howard himself is of course one of the most efficient 20 point a game scorers in the league as well. The Magic do themselves no favors offensively but are consistently productive due to elite halfcourt production in the regular season.

What Dwight Howard did to take an middling Magic roster to two 59 W years, with NBA Finals and Eastern Conference Finals appearances, should not be understated. What matters ultimately is wins added in the NBA and Dwight is looking at 35 to 40 Ws added each of the last 3 seasons. However, on the defensive end he didn’t do it alone. Defense is simply too much of a 5 game for one guy to single handidly carry everyone else that highly. Even Kevin Garnett, one of the greatest defenders of all time, couldn’t get the Timberwolves above average DRTGs many years – Because the systematic help wasn’t there. Howard has had it with the Magic and he may find out the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, once he inevitably lands on his second team. It might not be as easy as “We have Dwight, so we are top 5 defensively”.

Written by jr.

January 31, 2012 at 7:27 pm

One Response

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  1. According to RAPM he’s not even the best defensive center, at least not per possession. He plays more minutes than those with a higher per possession rating (Bogut, Collins, M.Gasol), so production wise he might be #1.
    This year, it seems, we have a bunch of forwards with very high defensive impact and some of them are rated higher than Howard. They include Deng, Iguodala, GWallace, TAllen.
    Philly is by far the best defensive team this year (as judged by DRTG, but with an easy schedule according to Sagarin). I would want to see Iguodala win DPOY if Philly keeps it up


    February 3, 2012 at 8:05 am

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