COMMENTARY | After Dwight Howard led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in the 2008-09 season, it was clear that D12 was the best center in the game.
Since then, Howard had three more great seasons in a Magic uniform, including the 2010-11 season when he averaged a career-high 22.9 points per game. Last year, Howard dealt with a torn labrum for a good portion of the year, while still playing in 76 games and averaging 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game. Howard's numbers were slightly disappointing, but the outcome of the season was even more of a letdown. Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol failed to live up to their championship aspirations, and the injury-riddled and aging Lakers barely made the playoffs.
Before Howard entered the league in 2004, the quality of NBA centers was declining. Shaquille O'Neal had absolutely no parallel during his title years with the Lakers, which took place after Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing had all been forced into knee braces. Shaq's dominance was partially due to an influx of great big men with hybrid skills (Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki), as guys who were solely back-to-the-basket scorers became less effective with the level of athleticism and quickness on the floor increasing exponentially.
In the 2011 NBA Finals, we saw Tyson Chandler play a big part in the Dallas Mavericks' championship, and despite his offensive ineptitude, his ability to protect the basket was extremely valuable to his team. Starting a few seasons before Chandler proved it on the big stage, we saw a rise in the talent level of big men, which we're still witnessing today. We saw a group of fundamentally sound centers (Greg Monroe, Al Horford), a crew of athletic bigs (DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins), and an increased number of European centers (Nikola Pekovic, Marc Gasol) all putting up solid numbers, leading to a renaissance of sorts at the 5.
If we're going to compare Howard to the best centers in the game, we need to point out his strengths first. Despite looking robotic in the post, he is a pretty solid scorer who can give you 20 points a night, and he has averaged over 20 points per game in four out of his last six seasons. He's still the best rebounder in the game today, as he's led the league five out of the last six years in rebounds per game. He's been in the top five in the league in blocks per game each of the last six seasons, averaging more than two a night each of those years, and winning Defensive Player of the Year three of them. Add that information to Howard still only being 27 years old, and it's obvious that we're dealing with an elite guy here.
If we just analyze Howard by the numbers, his case for being the best center in the game today is the strongest. Brook Lopez has put up similar scoring numbers, but he's not a good rebounder or defender, so the case for the better Lopez twin is pretty weak (even though having Kevin Garnett this year will be a great way to mask his deficiencies). Al Jefferson's numbers have been in the same ballpark as Howard for the last six years (although being slightly worse in each category), but he doesn't protect the basket anywhere near as well as guys like Howard, Tyson Chandler and Roy Hibbert.
Who else is even remotely close to Howard? Hibbert's numbers are worse across the board, and he's joined by Al Horford in that category. Young guys like the Cousins (too crazy), Pekovic (too slow-footed), and Larry Sanders (too useless on offense) will most likely never make an impact on the court like Howard did in Orlando (and like Howard will in Houston).
The only guy that you can make a convincing case for as a better all-around center is last year's Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol. Statistically, Gasol doesn't compare to Howard, but the 28-year-old Spaniard brings everything to the table. He can score facing up and with his back to the basket. The offense can run through him in the high post due to this court vision, basketball smarts, and passing ability. He is a great position defender, on top of being a decent shot-blocker and top-flight basket protector.
Gasol is considerably better than Howard in terms of skill level, and, because of that, the numbers game doesn't make for a fair fight (honestly, was 4.1 assists per game last year enough to make you jump out of your seat? I didn't think so). If Howard didn't have a bratty streak (to put it nicely), we're probably not having this conversation. But the argument for a team-oriented center who plays stellar defense on the best defensive team in basketball, on top of being a jack-of-all-trades offensively, could be convincing if prefaced with a spiel about chemistry and team defense being unquantifiable.
If the question is whether Dwight Howard is an elite center or not, then the answer is yes. The truth is that D12's legacy will revolve around what he does in Houston. If Howard returns to pre-Kobe-made-my-offensive-numbers-drop form, and lets his team's record do the talking, then all of a sudden we're looking at the best center in the game without a doubt.
If he doesn't? Well, let's not worry about that -- yet.
M. De Moor is an NBA junkie and who currently writes about all things NBA on HoopsHabit.com. He has followed the Rockets from the championship days of Hakeem Olajuwon, to the years of Francis and Mobley, to the McGrady and Yao era, and will continue to follow them through Harden and Dwight's reign of destruction.
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- Dwight Howard
- Marc Gasol
- Hakeem Olajuwon