Sunday, June 14, 2009

My take on Dwight Howard

Despite helping to lead the Orlando Magic to it’s first ever NBA Finals victory in Tuesday’s Game Three against the Lakers, and also putting in his best overall performance of the Finals in Thursday’s Game Four loss, Orlando’s Dwight Howard has been surprisingly underwhelming in the championship round so far, especially for someone widely regarded as the most dominant big man in the league today.

When looking at Howard’s performance and why it’s not befitting of the league’s top big, it’s important to take a glance at the Finals performances of some the modern top bigs who came before him, and why, if Howard is to lead his team’s comeback against the Lakers and is to be considered in the upper echelon of NBA centers, his game, especially on the offensive end, needs to be taken to another level.

The first and most obvious Howard comparison would be to the last big-name Magic center, who incidentally is also the last to lead Orlando to the Finals, Shaquille O’Neal. They have the same nickname, the same theme music and even the same physical style of play. But Shaq’s ability to elevate his game in the postseason, and in particular the NBA Finals, is where the comparison stops.

Shaq has elevated his scoring averages from the regular season every time he’s appeared in the NBA Finals, except for his loss to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets in 1995. And his overall playoff scoring, rebounding and assist averages are all higher than his career regular season averages. And with his three consecutive Finals MVP awards, he is generally regarded as one of the best Finals performers in NBA history.

Howard has also drawn comparisons to the aforementioned Olajuwon, due to their freakish athleticism and unusual combination of size, speed and strength. However, Olajuwon’s highly refined and utterly devastating post moves dwarf Howard’s relatively archaic offensive skill level, and much like Shaq, Hakeem was well known for putting in his best work during the post season and especially the Finals.

Olajuwon spent the Rockets two championship runs making a habit of outplaying and occasionally even embarrassing all of the top centers of his day, including O’Neal, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, and even took it to an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during Houston’s surprising run to the Finals in 1986 (despite their eventual loss to Boston).

Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon

Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon

He also has one of the largest leaps in career playoff scoring from his regular season averages of any player in NBA history, including averaging an astonishing 33 points per game for the duration of the 1995 championship run, while his career playoff assists, blocked shots, rebound averages and shooting percentages all are higher than his regular season totals. Hakeem’s famous 1995 scoring dominance was also punctuated by averaging 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 4.0 blocks per game – all truly incredible numbers. And his back-to-back Finals MVPs cemented his legacy as one of the ultimate NBA clutch performers in every sense of the word.

It only seems right to compare Howard to the last great big man to grace the post season hardwood as well, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan.

Timmy D’s four championship rings were brought by postseason increases in points, rebounds, assists and blocked shots, and his three Finals MVP awards elevated him into an exclusive stratosphere of modern NBA centers/winners, along with O’Neal and Olajuwon.

Dwight Howard, on the other hand, while also increasing his post season averages in points, rebounds and in shooting percentage, still seems to be missing that certain understanding of the offensive game and the complete offensive repertoire that these other three truly great modern big men had.

His postseason scoring average this year of 19.6 points per game is the highest postseason average of his career, while the same number would be considered pedestrian, if not downright disappointing, for any of the other three mentioned centers. And his Finals output has been even less, as he’s averaging only 16.4 points per game against a Lakers squad not exactly known for its interior defense.

His assist numbers remain abysmal, at only 1.8 per game, which should be much higher for a post-up center whose team is trying to run their offense through and who is being doubled with regularity. This shows a still elementary understanding of the offensive complexities of post work, that Howard is still not realizing the full impact his physical presence and offensive skills can have on the game simply by creating matchup problems and getting his teammates involved. By comparison, Duncan averaged 3.5 assists per in the post season, Olajuwon 3.2 and O’Neal 2.8.

Howard also struggles immensely with his free throws, shooting only 64 percent in these playoffs, including 1-4 down the stretch in Thursday’s loss. It was Howard’s clutch-time misses that kept the door open for Derek Fisher’s late-game 3-ball heroics that put Orlando in its 3–1 series hole.

Is Kobe Bryant Overrated?

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal

At the moment, on the offensive side of the ball, Howard lacks Olajuwon’s grace, footwork and refinement, Duncan’s strong basic fundamentals and understanding of the game and O’Neal’s realization of the full prowess his size and strength gives him.

Even Howard’s supposed strong point, the defensive side of the ball, has a hard time measuring up to the others. Howard’s career post season block averages of 2.6 per game lead only Shaq’s 2.2, still trailing Duncan’s 2.7 and well behind Olajuwon’s playoff average of 3.3. Those numbers become even lower if you take away Thursday night’s 9-block extravaganza, which based on Howard’s previous 35 post season games, was more a one-game anomaly than a trend. This suggests that the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year still has a long way to go on the defensive side before he can take his place among the NBA’s modern elite centers.

The only portion of Howard’s Finals and overall postseason performance that can be considered truly dominant has been his rebounding, as he’s averaging a huge 15.6 boards per game this post season, including 16.5 against L.A. And you can’t take that away from Howard, but he’s doing it on a team that basically asks him to grab every rebound while both forwards hover around the perimeter.

Ultimately, it will be Howard’s performance the rest of the way out that will truly write the end to Orlando’s season. Will he be able to lift the team onto his broad shoulders and take them to the promised land, as the other great modern centers have done? Or will his youth, inexperience and still rudimentary understanding of the offensive part of the game be too much for the Magic to overcome without a truly dominant scorer to pick up the slack?

And though he’s still young, and there’s many pages left to be written in the story of Dwight Howard’s NBA career — both O’Neal and Olajuwon lost their first Finals appearances only to bounce back better than ever later in their career — the initial chapters of his legacy will be cemented in these last several games of the 2009 NBA season. If he truly wants to be considered a dominant NBA big man, he’ll take this opportunity to prove it to us.


gizmo said...

is this a sports blog?

Trey said...

Didn't Duncan just win 2 finals MVPs? And I want to give Howard a pass on this for now. He's still pretty young and very raw. Now if he's still having these problems two years from now, then yeah, he shouldn't be compared to the other big guys.

Jordy said...

I think you could have found a better picture of The Dream.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Dream the only great, true center to win a championship without a fellow all-star on the court (1994)?

Vik Vij said...

@Trey. Wikipedia says he won 3 Finals MVPs. 99, 03, and 05. He won 2 MVPs in 02 and 03. Howard is young but has been anointed as the best center in the NBA. In terms of rebounding and defense, he is, but in terms of offense, he is not. I just wanted to make that point.

@Jordy, I chose that pic because it looks like Dream (and Shaq) are relaxing and looking on as Howard struggle to do anything on the offensive end of the court other than dunk, charge wildly through the lane (only from the right to the left) and miss half his FTs.

You are correct about 1994 tho.

Trey said...

ah. forgot about 03

Jordy said...

If you read Jerome Solomon's blog, he entertained a Shaq vs Olajuwon debate. I think that's a better question than anything regarding Howard (at least for now).

So, who's the better player? I'm totally biased and think Olajuwon.

Vik Vij said...

Jordy. I agree with you. Hakeem one one title basically on his own. Sure, Kenny, Maxwell, Horry, Thorpe and Cassell were good players, but they were never on the level of a D-Wade or Kobe, who Shaq won titles with. Let's not forget when Hakeem in his prime played Shaq (real close to his prime, but, admittedly, before his real prime) Hakeem and the Rockets swept a loaded Orlando team.

In terms of skill, there is no doubt Hakeem was superior. In terms of dominance, Shaq, b/c of sheer physical girth and mass, was probably more dominant. There was simply nobody who was big enough to guard Shaq.

At the same time, there was nobody to guard Hakeem. David Robinson, one of the elite defensive centers in NBA history, was routinely abused by Hakeem.

Bottom line, I'll go with Hakeem over Shaq, but it's close.

N.a.t.e. said...

I think Hakeem was a better player, or more talented player. Shaq was more dominant because of his size. Hakeem was way more skilled. Hakeem could hit free throws. If I had to take one or the other in their prime for a seven game series, I am taking Hakeem. He wasa dominant on both ends of the court.