Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
[Previously: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki • Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter • Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan • Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas • Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili • Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson • Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon • Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson • Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell • Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash • Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller • Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone • Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady]
THE MATCHUP: Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
You could argue Dwight Howard entered the NBA in his prime at the age of 18, when he averaged a double-double for a bad Orlando Magic team (that did improve 15 wins from a season that resulted in his No. 1 overall selection), but he really hit his stride in his third season. The 2006-07 campaign ended with Howard’s (winless) playoff debut, his first All-Star selection and his initial All-NBA nod.
The chemistry concerns and back injuries that eventually cost him his reputation as an elite center surfaced at times during a string of eight straight All-Star appearances, but Howard was still the second-best player on a Houston Rockets team that reached the 2015 Western Conference finals.
From 2006-15, Howard averaged 19.2 points (60.4 true shooting percentage), 13.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 3.3 combined blocks and steals in 35.8 minutes per game. He made an All-NBA roster in eight of those nine seasons, including five First Team bids. Howard won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards in the midst of five straight All-Defensive campaigns. His teams made the playoffs each season during his prime, reaching three conference finals and the 2009 Finals.
Rondo’s sophomore season was not statistically one of his best, but by the end of it he was an essential member of the 2008 champion Boston Celtics — and arguably the best player in a Finals-clinching Game 6 that featured at least five future Hall of Famers in their primes. He made his first of four straight All-Star appearances two years later, when he may have been named 2010 Finals MVP had the Celtics not blown a late Game 7 lead. While he led the league in assists once more after tearing his ACL in January 2013, the injury was the end of Prime Rondo as we knew him.
From 2007-13, Rondo averaged 12.0 points (51.8 true shooting percentage), 9.2 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 combined steals and blocks in 34.8 minutes per game. Playing alongside Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, his Celtics made the playoffs in each of those six seasons, reaching three conference finals, two Finals and winning the 2008 title. When they pushed LeBron James’ Miami Heat to seven games in the 2012 East finals, Rondo was his team’s best player.
While Rondo played with Boston’s Big Three for the entirety of his prime, Howard was largely the Magic’s lone All-Star — save for 2008-09, when they put Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson on the East squad during Orlando’s Finals campaign — before teaming up with future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash on the Los Angeles Lakers and James Harden in Houston.
We can debate whether Rondo’s numbers benefited or suffered from playing with three senior All-Stars — the answer likely varies from stat to stat — but it is hard to argue against Howard’s prime statistics. He carried a greater burden, and his peak production lasted several seasons longer.
Howard’s apex unquestionably came during the 2008-09 season, when he was the First Team All-NBA center and Defensive Player of the Year for a team that defeated LeBron’s 66-win Cleveland Cavaliers en route to the Finals. Just before the 3-point era began in earnest, the Magic built a team perfectly suited for Howard, surrounding the bruising paint presence with sharpshooters.
In that space, Howard averaged 20.6 points on 57.2 percent shooting from the field. His 13.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks both led the league. He finished fourth in MVP voting behind James, Bryant and Dwyane Wade — the second of four straight top-five finishes. His highest MVP finish was second to Derrick Rose in 2011, when his Magic lost in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks.
During the 2009 playoffs, Howard averaged 20.3 points (60.1 FG%, 63.6 FT%), 15.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 3.5 combined blocks and steals in 39.3 minutes per game. He dropped a 40-14-4 in the East-clinching Game 6 victory against the Cavaliers, before a relatively underwhelming Finals effort in a series against the Lakers that was far closer than the five-game outcome in Bryant’s favor.
Howard and Rondo met twice in the playoffs, including 2009, when the Magic beat the Garnett-less Celtics in seven games. Howard averaged 16.4 points, 17.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in the 2009 series to Rondo’s 14.3 points, 10.1 boards, 8.0 assists and 2.3 steals. Both players posted double-doubles in Game 7, but Howard was a game-high plus-27 to Rondo’s game-worst minus-23.
Rondo’s career has many peaks. He reached the mountaintop with his team in 2008, but he was a more integral part of Boston’s run to the 2010 Finals and an absolute monster in 2012. He was probably at his very best when he tore his ACL in 2013, but for these purposes his apex as a player came in 2011-12, when he made his only All-NBA roster and a fourth straight All-Defensive team.
That lockout-shortened season, Rondo averaged 11.9 points (54.0 true shooting percentage), a league-high 11.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 combined blocks and steals in 36.9 minutes a night.
Cementing his “Playoff Rondo” persona, he elevated his game several levels in the 2012 postseason, averaging 17.3 points (50.5 true shooting percentage), 11.9 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 combined blocks and steals in 42.6 minutes per game. His 44 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and three steals in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals was him at his finest — and it may have swung the series in Boston’s favor had Miami not eked out a 115-111 home victory in overtime.
As much as Rondo’s impact cannot be measured in statistics — the brilliant mind, the incredible passing angles and the sheer competitiveness — so too is Howard’s defensive impact. He was the most dominant center in the league on a team that made the Finals counting either Lewis, Nelson or Hedo Turkoglu as its second-best player, and that was reflected in the MVP voting. Rondo never placed higher than eighth in an MVP race (2012), and Howard was fourth or better from 2009-11.
Playoff Rondo was a real thing, even beyond his tenure in Boston (excluding his benching with the 2015 Dallas Mavericks). With the 2017 Chicago Bulls, he threatened to unseat the top-seeded Celtics before his thumb injury resulted in four straight first-round losses, and he was a vital piece to the 2018 New Orleans Pelicans puzzle that swept the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers before losing to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. And both he and Howard were expected to come off the bench for the Lakers before this season was suspended due to the coronavirus scare.
In eight playoff appearances, Rondo has averaged 14 points (48.5 true shooting percentage), 9.3 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 2.1 combined blocks and steals in 37.6 minutes a game. He averaged a 17-10-10 in the 2009 playoffs and won a game over Miami with one arm after Wade hyperextended his elbow in the 2011 conference semifinals, and neither effort came in his two best postseasons.
The bigger the game, the better Rondo was, or at least it often felt that way. In the close-out Game 6 against the Lakers in the 2008 Finals, he posted 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals. He averaged 13.6 points, 7.6 assists and 6.3 rebounds in the 2010 Finals and was among the few Celtics who showed up for Game 7 (nearly posting a triple-double). And he averaged a 21-11-7 in the 2012 conference finals loss to the Heat, including a 22-10-14 triple-double in Game 7.
Rondo has played in seven Game 7s in his career and won four of them, averaging an impressive 12.7 points (43.9 FG%, 70.0 FT%), 9.9 assists, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 combined blocks and steals.
Howard’s playoff reputation is far from nickname worthy, unless Bryant calling him “soft” had stuck. He did emerge victorious from both Game 7s in his career — the aforementioned second-round win over the Celtics in 2009 and a Western Conference semifinals stunner against the Los Angeles Clippers in 2015 — averaging 14.0 points (11-17 FG, 6-10 FT), 15.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 4.0 combined blocks and steals. He also beat James with both near the peak of their powers in 2009.
In 10 playoff appearances, Howard has averaged 18.4 points (59.5 true shooting percentage), 13.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 3.4 combined blocks and steals in 37 minutes per game. At the height of his career, he was swept twice in the first round and lost five more playoff series in five-game sets.
There is also the two free throws Howard missed in the final seconds of regulation in Game 4 of the 2009 Finals, opening the door for Lakers guard Derek Fisher’s game-tying 3-pointer and an overtime loss that cost the Magic their shot to tie the series. His eight missed free throws and seven turnovers erased his 16 points, 21 rebounds and Finals-record nine blocks. It was the inevitability of a career-long concern — that his limitations could make him a detriment in the biggest of moments.
• Howard: Eight-time All-NBA selection (5x First Team, 1x Second Team); eight-time All-Star; three-time Defensive Player of the Year; five-time All-Defensive selection (4x First Team); five-time rebounding leader; two-time blocks leader; 2008 slam dunk champion
• Rondo: 2008 NBA champion; 2012 Third Team All-NBA selection; four-time All-Star; four-time All-Defensive selection (2x First Team); three-time assists leader; 2010 steals leader
Rondo can always make the argument his championship ring is worth more than anything in Howard’s trophy case, but only one has enough hardware to warrant a Hall of Fame nod. Howard’s run of five straight First Team All-NBA selections, featuring three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, is worthy of a Hall call, regardless of his self-destructiveness during his career.
Rondo appeared Hall of Fame-bound before the knee injury kept him from a full season at age 26. He was never the same player again, especially on defense, and made just the one All-NBA team the year prior. I am sure he would take his ring over Howard’s many accolades, but there is a point when even the less valuable hardware has to tip the scales, and Howard is on the other side of it.
For the culture
Howard had begun to resurrect his image as a productive reserve on the first-place Lakers this season, and it would be interesting to see just how much of it he could rehabilitate if he were to win a title when the league returns this season or next. But we will not soon forget his many low points.
Howard left the Magic burning in his wake, clashed with Bryant in Los Angeles and Harden in Houston before his Hawks teammates reportedly cheered his exit from Atlanta in 2017, and his Hornets cohorts grew “sick and tired of his act” prior to his ouster from Charlotte in 2018. He was widely considered the league’s worst teammate for a time, and that was just in the locker room.
Away from the court, Howard has had several high-profile custody and child support cases with the five mothers of his five children in addition to a 2014 child abuse investigation. While no charges were ever filed against Howard, he admitted to beating his 6-year-old son with a belt. He is also involved in a counter lawsuit against claims he sexually harassed YouTube personality Masin Elije.
Rondo is no stranger to controversy, either. He famously clashed with coaches in Boston, Dallas and Sacramento before calling out his teammates in Chicago. His most troubling moment came when he reportedly called referee Bill Kennedy a homophobic slur on multiple occasions during an in-game tirade, essentially forcing the longtime ref to publicly come out as gay.
In the locker room, despite holding a grudge against former Celtics teammate Ray Allen, quitting on Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and publicly criticizing Bulls teammates Wade and Jimmy Butler, Rondo is widely respected by his peers, including stars Garnett, Pierce, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Younger teammates have also lauded his leadership during his four NBA stops since Dallas, and he appears to be a coach or general manager in the making.
Rondo has carefully constructed a reputation as a blend between ornery genius and wonderful weirdo, a last vestige of the NBA’s old-school mentality, too smart to accept criticism without pushback, too crafty not to be granted leeway — a Connect Four connoisseur with a passion for roller skating and the heir to Garnett’s combative “you’re either with me or against me” mentality.
This is not exactly a glowing review of either player, but in the end you would probably rather be considered Garnett’s most loyal brother in arms rather than the guy Bryant dismissed as soft.
THE DAGGER: Dwight Howard is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
– – – – – – –