By: Zachariah Blott
Imagine being an NBA coach, and your squad is about to face the Cavaliers. What do you do about LeBron James? Who do you have that’s willing to stick him, has the quickness to not get embarrassed on the perimeter, and has the size and strength to not get embarrassed in the paint?
Gameplanning for James’ offensive abilities is obviously a devastating thought, as it is when you face Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and a handful of other premier offensive centerpieces. But are you really that worried about any of these stars shutting down your offense? You popping any Advils thinking about who Kevin Durant might guard on your squad tonight?
Usually a team’s defensive system, not its individual players, is what you gameplan for on that side of the ball, but occasionally a coach has problems on his hands if the other club just happens to have Ron Artest and Shane Battier in their starting lineup. More often, a true stopper in the middle needs to be accounted for from an individual standpoint: Are we going inside against Chris Andersen? Eh, let’s roll the dice from the perimeter.
Rare is the player who opposing coaches have to consider and plan around because of both parts of their game. Dwight Howard pops out as the most complete WTF-do-we-do-about-that-guy player in the league. Not only is he far and away the most intimidating defender, altering and discouraging just about everything inside of 15 feet, his capabilities define how the Magic’s offensive scheme works to a degree that only Steve Nash’s relation to the Suns’ fast break can compare.
To see how difficult a task gameplanning for Howard is, one should examine what he provides in terms of offense and defense, and how important he is to what the Magic are trying to accomplish on both ends of the court.
Gameplanning for Howard’s Defense
It’s no big secret that Howard is the best defensive player in the league. He’s the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, the odds-on favorite to win it again this year, and his team’s Defensive Rating continues to sit right near the top of the league. In fact, Orlando’s defensive rating has ranked between 1st and 6th in the NBA for each of the past four seasons, including the current one. That would be every year since Howard turned 20 years old.
Much more on Dwight Howard’s strangehold on the NBA after the break…
Whereas an amazing perimeter defender can slow down a great scorer, an amazing interior defender can slow down whole teams. Consider the transformation of the Magic’s defense: for the fourth straight season, they rank among the game’s elite. The previous four seasons—which includes Howard’s two seasons as a teenager and the two prior to his arrival—were abysmal. They had the worst defensive rating in the entire league in 2003-04, the year before Orlando wisely drafted Howard over Emeka Okafor. That season is mercifully mixed in with others in which their defense ranked 18th, 20th, and 24th in the league, putting their D squarely in the below-average to worst range.
How’d he flip his team’s defensive mojo so drastically? (Brian Hill was the coach before and after the big turnaround, so don’t assume Stan Van Gundy came in and straightened things out.) For starters, his blocked shots have risen sharply from 1.4 to nearly 3 per due to experience and a better ability to slide into the paint from the weakside. More importantly than that, however, is the perception that he can block any shot inside the lane.
This creates fear in opponents, and fear creates bad shots. Three blocked shots out of 85 attempts doesn’t drastically improve a defense. But 3 blocks coupled with 10-15 fearfully poor shots inside, plus another 10 that are now taken a little farther back than desired so they won’t be rejected can screw up an offense real good.
The Magic yield only 17.3 buckets per inside of 10 feet. The only team to allow less, Cleveland at 17.1, plays at a significantly slower pace. Additionally, Orlando allows only 52% of shots that close to go in, the lowest in a league that surrenders 56% from that distance. Howard’s blend of sheer physical force paired with his rare-for-his-size explosiveness makes for a defensive force any opposing coach would be scared to send players near, which creates some problems because the most fruitful shots and passes are supposed to happen close to the hoop.
Not only are other teams not able to hit as many shots as they’d like against the Magic (who allow a 44% FG%, best in the league), they can’t get the rebounds either. Orlando tops everyone in defensive rebounding percentage at 77%. I don’t have to tell you who’s about to lead the league for the fifth straight year in rebounds and third straight year in defensive rebounds.
Gameplanning for Howard’s Offense
Howard averages 19 points on 10 shots per. Think about that. He misses an average of only 1 shot each quarter. No one in the league can approach that level of efficiency. Sure, he’s only second in effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage, but he averages far more points than Nene and Kendrick Perkins, the two players who are barely ahead of him in each category right now.
Howard’s field-goal percentage has been up around 60% for the past four seasons, which puts him right on par with Shaquille O’Neal’s best stretches. Shaq certainly did a better job of demanding the ball for more shots, but he is also a 53% career free-throw shooter. Howard definitely isn’t great from the charity stripe, but he’s knocked down over 60% for his career and for this season.
This is where most opponents take their chances with Howard: at the free-throw line. He leads the league with 10.3 free throw attempts per, so it’s clear what coaches want their players to do with him in lieu of getting dunked on: Hack-a-Dwight. Sometimes an opposing coach wants to stop Howard altogether and opts to double-team him; this is where Howard’s true importance to the Magic offense becomes evident. They have been built to punish any team that gives him too much attention.
As Cleveland and the rest of us learned in the 2009 Playoffs, Orlando likes to shoot 3’s… a lot of 3’s. They have eight players who average at least 2.5 triple attempts per. As a team, they toss up over 27 per, way ahead of anyone who plays at their speed. And for the teams that play much faster and jack lots of triples in transition, like Phoenix and Indiana and New York, the Magic average more than them too.
Because Howard attracts so much attention in the paint, the rest of his teammates can hang out on the perimeter waiting for their chance to throw up bombs over a collapsed defense. Everyone’s shooting improves dramatically when they don’t have defenders pestering them (ask Cleveland’s Delonte West and Mo Williams), and Orlando’s perimeter shooters don’t get nearly the attention Howard commands. Without the big guy in the middle, Orlando wouldn’t be shooting 36% from deep (7th in NBA), and they sure wouldn’t be leading the league by a mile with 30 points per off trifectas.
The result of this unique system—get it inside to Howard for certain points or outside to wide-open shooters if he’s covered tightly—is a healthy 53% eFG%, the NBA’s third-best rate. The Magic’s Offensive Rating is around 110 for the third straight season, something Orlando hasn’t accomplished since Shaq was in town, back when the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”/”Blossom” lineup was working wonders for NBC.
There are very few players in the NBA to whom you can attribute the entire success of their team’s offensive system (giving LeBron James high-fives is not a system). Orlando has a distinct way of trying to score, and it has no chance of working without Howard. Steve Nash running the Suns’ fast break also falls into this category. Outside of these two, no one else is so responsible for the structure and outcome of a team’s offense.
Bringing It All Together
Howard is in a league by himself when it comes to giving opposing coaches headaches. There are probably 12-18 players whose offensive skills legitimately can’t be neutralized without sacrificing massive amounts of production from their four teammates. Howard is certainly in this group. Additionally, Orlando’s team was specifically built to score based on what Howard brings to the table. Appropriately, it is quite a good offense.
On the defensive end, only an inside enforcer can drastically affect a team’s overall ability to curb scoring. Luc Mbah a Moute and Tayshaun Prince can throw a monkeywrench into Durant’s plans to drop 25 points in a night, but a single wing defender isn’t turning a bad defense into a great defense: a big with the right instincts and attitude can. As great a job as Gerald Wallace and Andrew Bogut have done in this capacity, Howard is the best in the business at patrolling the paint, making scoring a real chore for other teams.
Gameplanning for either of these two types of players—offensive juggernaut or defensive stopper—is enough of a pain, and Dwight Howard’s the only NBA player near the top of the game at both. Good luck coaches; Howard’s more than capable of “surprising” the world again this post-season.
Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.