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
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.
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.