A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Was Dwight Howard’s defense always overrated?

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The Dwight.One of the reasons Dwight Howard hasn’t improved the Lakers as much as expected, is a less than significant defensive impact. The team ranks 19th in DRTG, low for a team with a 3x Defensive Player of the Year. There are a lot of factors that can be blamed for this. Mike D’Antoni’s systems have never been known for defense, the Lakers are filled with slow perimeter players and Howard isn’t healthy. That’s fine.

But I’d like to re-examine how we came to the conclusion Howard is an elite defender. For one, he dominated in the flashiest defensive statistics, blocks per game. But what it really came down to is Orlando’s elite defensive teams and the personnel he played with.  The Magic finished 1st, 3rd, and 3rd in DRTG in Dwight’s DPOY years from 09-11, made more impressive when considering he played with anti-defensive players like Jameer Nelson, JJ Redick, Vince Carter, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson during that time. On the surface it looks like Dwight was carrying otherwise terrible defensive teams to top 5 rankings on his own.

This may be true, but contextual factors may have helped. The Magic’s slow pace and reluctance to send anyone to the offensive glass but Howard, may have helped them prevent any transition baskets, as well as gang rebound on the defensive glass instead of trying to leak out to score any fastbreak points. This may be while in 2009 they finished 1st on the defensive glass and 29th in offensive rebounding, in 2010 they finished 1st in defensive rebounding and 25th in offensive rebounding, while in 2011 they finished 1st in defensive rebounding and 15th in offensive rebounding. Such a wide gap between defensive and offensive rebounding performance is likely related to players making an effort to go for the former and not the latter, something halfcourt defensive coaches often employ. Furthermore in general, while the Magic’s supporting cast wasn’t athletic, what they almost all had in common is a high basketball IQ. If one considers IQ and positional awareness to be as important as physical tools when judging defense (personally I think it’s more important, possibly even 70% position and IQ, 30% physical tools), those Magic perimeter players aren’t as defensively inadequate in talent as one would think.

Judging Dwight defensively by his team results is difficult. He might be responsible for those results, he might not be. The results themselves aren’t necessarily proof. So let me throw out my objective way of judging defense. I believe it’s a combination of physical tools and intelligence/feel. While having the speed to rotate hard on opponents and length to disrupt them is important, rotating correctly positionally is also huge. That’s why Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are still very effective defensive players after their athleticism has slipped and why a players like Luol Deng and a younger Shane Battier didn’t need amazing speed to be great defenders. Where players get particularly devastating defensively to me, is when they have both dominant physical tools and dominant positional intelligence. The younger Garnett and Duncan exemplified this, as well as other historically great big defenders like David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Walton, Bill Russell, etc. As for perimeter players, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had both. While in modern day aside from Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, Andre Iguodala and Paul George are two wing defenders I consider to be that complete package defensively of knockout physical tools and feel.

This is the main reason I’m not sold on Dwight Howard defensively. His physical tools and impact for his time were exceptional, no doubt. However his positional IQ and feel is behind the greats. He’s certainly not bad in that category, maybe even above average. But players like Duncan, Garnett, Russell, Robinson, Walton, etc. are geniuses on that end of the floor. Howard positionally is less than flawless. While the defense of his teammates and his health hurts his defense, there have been many plays as a Laker where positionally he found himself in a questionable spot or late. Present Howard is still a level up athletically from present Garnett and Duncan and he’s worse defender than them. Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert are playing better defense not because they’re physically more imposing than present Howard, but because they’re smarter players. This is something Howard can’t blame his banged up body on. It’s a flaw and I wonder if it extends back farther than people realize. Putting aside the Magic’s defensive results which may be affected by noise, without believing in Dwight’s IQ or feel as elite, I can’t say he passes the sniff test as a historically great defender during his prime. In fact if my estimate of 70% of defense being related to non-physical tools is true, I’m not sure I love more than like Howard as a defender at all.

Written by jr.

March 1, 2013 at 10:45 am

Posted in Basketball

Tagged with , , ,

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