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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

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Of Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and the weird relationship between athleticism and camera angles

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If you follow draft prospects, you know Andrew Wiggins. Despite not being eligible until the 2014 draft, he’s a bigger prospect than anyone in the 2013 draft. This is because not only is he ranked #1 in 2014, but has some extra sauce with that. He’s getting “best prospect since Lebron???” next superduperstar treatment by the media. Chad Ford of ESPN.com has repeatedly mentioned “Tracy McGrady with a motor” as his prediction for him. The basis for this hype is his physical tools. Wiggins actually has a raw skill game, with an inconsistent outside shot and shaky ball-handling. The book on him is that his physical tools are so great that it gives him unlimited upside if his skill game catches up.

Now, assessment of the athleticism of high school players is hit and miss. One reason Marvin Williams went 2nd overall over Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005, is that he had a Wiggins-like profile in high school as an all-time great wing athlete. Of course, we know now he’s an average athlete in the NBA. Likewise O.J. Mayo and Harrison Barnes were thought to have much more impressive athletic profiles beside their skill games and Demar Derozan was thought to be a freakish athletic specimen, only to turn out average. The best recent example may be Shabazz Muhammad, who has been an extremely underwhelming athlete during his NCAA career. Shabazz is relevant because it tipped me over an edge in regards to judging high school athletes by the footage available of them at the time. Here is a video I made before the NCAA started trying to evaluate Shabazz and admittedly, almost everything I said in it turned out inaccurate

Here are some other videos of Shabazz in high school

 

Watching videos like this would give no reason to doubt Shabazz’s athleticism or to call him anything less than good to great in the area. He’s blowing by defenders and playing above the rim. However this is how Shabazz has looked at UCLA:

 

The difference is quite striking. Perhaps it’s the competition he’s playing with, but my guess is it’s simply the camera angle that makes Shabazz look like he’s covering much less ground. The frame of reference is different. We are used to judging athletes so much based on the NCAA and NBA courts, that if the angle changes, they may be moving at a speed that looks elite based on what our eyes are used to into the NBA – but without the common denominator of the same court size and angles, it may be an optical illusion. What I now realize is that the best indicator for Shabazz’s athleticism was the Nike Hoop Summit, a game played on NBA style cameras between the top prospects.

 

In this game he looks identical to his UCLA version. Skilled and crafty, but with weak blow-by ability and mostly an under the rim player. After this, I’m not going to trust any more clips of high school players unless they have the frame of reference of NCAA/NBA style cameras. No more clips of players with the camera near the floor, no more highlight videos.

What does this have to do with Andrew Wiggins’ athleticism? Everything. Here are some clips where Wiggins looks like an unstoppable combination of speed and size attacking the basket and exploding above the rim

 

If one only saw these they would have little reason to doubt the massive Lebron, McGrady-like hype around Wiggins’ athleticism. But for the reasons I listed, the NBA style cameras during the Nike Hoop Summit may be the more reliable indicator

 

Wiggins’ athleticism looks shockingly underwhelming in that clip. His first step certainly does not wow, which in combination with shaky ball-handling, makes him look hardly unstoppable slashing to the basket. He has to pull up on many drives instead of taking it all the way to the basket. Even when it comes to vertical explosiveness around the rim, his supposed strength, he underwhelms. At 3:23 he awkwardly lays in a basket instead of having the power to finish the dunk. From 4:55 to 5:17 he misses multiple finishes inside in traffic. At 6:07, he misses a dunk at the rim due to a lack of power going up strong. If one saw this clip without the other, alternate angle ones or highlight videos, they likely in no way would compare Wiggins to Lebron and McGrady athletically. Wiggins looks like a great, smooth athlete, but not a freakishly explosive one. I have watched the above video many times and simply cannot see the type of athlete that should be garnering Lebron comparisons.

Now since seeing the above clip, I have tried to watch Wiggins whenever his games are shown on ESPN, which they have been regularly this season. While not as perfect a match for the NBA style cameras that the Nike Hoop Summit is, they’re filmed in a way that’s fairly reliable. Once again his explosiveness did not stand out to me, as a wing relying on his size, power, skill and feel, but not freakish speed or blow-by ability.

Does Wiggins have a chance to be an excellent wing player in the NBA? Yes. His feel for the game is elite if not transcendent. He has the shooting form to develop strongly in that area and is a natural in the post. He’s at worst, a very good athlete for a wing player. But I’m convinced his athleticism is badly overrated, possibly as much as Marvin Williams’ was.

Written by jr.

January 28, 2013 at 9:12 pm