Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Dwight Howard was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, consecutively, while with the Orlando Magic. Now, with the Lakers, his defense isn't nearly as impactful as it once was. We take a dive into advanced defensive statistics and utilize play diagrams as we compare Dwight Howard then, and now.
Dwight Howard is a Los Angeles Laker. Rather, the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Dwight Howard, and are still anxiously awaiting his arrival on the court. When he lifted up his purple and gold uniform for the first time beside Mitch Kupchak during their press conference it was a moment of elation for fans of the Lakers, but a moment that was handcuffed to a simple yet dirty little fact: Dwight Howard was still in heavy rehabilitation for his surgically repaired back. What would his timetable be? January was a widely speculated return time frame for the big man, yet he managed to get back on the court during the Lakers atrocious preseason.
So here we are, now 37 games into the Lakers season, and they are still searching for the Dwight Howard they needed; the defensive anchor, the difference maker, the yin on defense to Kobe's yang on offense. The Lakers defense, as a whole, has been miserable this season. Currently, the Lakers are giving up 101.9 points per game (26th in the league), and 107 points per 100 possessions. Simply not good enough for a title or bust squad that is currently going to have to win games at a feverish pace to make the playoffs at all.
Is Dwight struggling as much as it seems to the eyes? Advanced defensive statistics are a rabbit hole to dive into at this stage-- nowhere near as accurate as the developments with offensive statistics. However, when digging, there can be conclusions made. How? With Dwight, let's take a look at the last time he won Defensive Player of the Year (2010-2011) in comparison to what he's doing now with the Lakers.
The first stop is Synergy.
Dwight Howard: 2012-2013
Well, damn. Howard is apparently dominating by the numbers on Synergy, isn't he? The eyes tell a different story, and the team defense sings a significantly different tune, but there it is. Ranked 4th overall and only allowing .64 points per possession and 30.7% shooting. Moving on, though, let's take a look at his 2010-2011 campaign.
Dwight Howard: 2010-2011
This is where the first red flag shoots up in our travel down this rabbit hole. When he was awarded DPOY last, he actually allowed .15 points more per possession, and Howard certainly isn't playing like the Defensive Player of the Year for the Lakers. The first thing worth noting here is that thus far in his season with the Lakers, we only have 33% of the amount of possessions as a sample size (153 FGAs / 463 FGAs). Dwight's raw numbers look good according to Synergy, but the only conclusion to be made here? We have to go further.
The 2010-2011 Orlando Magic weren't an especially gifted team on the defensive side of the ball. The following players played 20 minutes per game or more for them when Dwight won DPOY honors there last: Mickael Pietrus, Gilbert Arenas, J.J. Redick, Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, and Vince Carter. Yet, that group was 4th in the NBA allowing 93.7 points per game with a 101.8 defensive efficiency per 100 possessions. Where were they specifically dominant? Defensive rebounding, where they were #1 in the league in both raw numbers and defensive rebounding %. The Magic, as a whole, rebounded 76.9% of the available defensive rebounds to them, while the Lakers this season are at 73.2% which places them 15th and right in the middle of the pack.
Is it a coincidence that Howard had a DRB% of 30.1% with the Magic that year, while with the Lakers he has a DRB% of 26.3%, and the Lakers are the team that's at the middle of the road in that category? This is an important statistic on the defensive side of the ball, and it just so happens to be one of the ever important four defensive factors.
These stats and numbers are beginning to become overwhelming, so let's take a moment and go back to the basics of basketball. What we see with our eyes on the floor. Continuing down the path of comparing 2010-2011 Dwight Howard with this purple and gold version.
Dwight Howard is protecting the paint while the action is going on away from his position. David West goes down to set a screen and is going to pop pop out to mid-range territory.
West makes his move as he slips the screen while the Magic look to trap. Howard is aware of this and is ready to rotate.
Howard actually over commits to a David West pump fake and finds himself off the ground. West now has a clear path to the rim with Dwight needing to recover after launching preemptively.
Despite having to recover, Dwight Howard still manages to get back to the rim in time and blocks David West's attempt. A very impressive display of athleticism and agility.
Here, we have Chris Duhon attempting to guard Kyrie Irving. Howard is out of the paint and ready to trap him in the corner.
The trap is set but Irving has Tyler Zeller as a release valve.
Zeller is out on the perimeter and Howard makes the switch.
Howard leaps out at Zeller, who now has daylight in front of him.
Howard is unable to recover, and doesn't look as if he's going to be anywhere close to bouncing back after recoiling from his initial jump. Zeller gets an open look for an easy mid-range J.
Moving on, Howard is matched up with Brook Lopez, who will be shooting down to the corner of the arc to set a screen.
The Nets get the switch they, theoretically, want. Howard is in a great defensive stance and is prepared to pick up the ball-handler while Jameer Nelson goes under the screen.
They swing the ball back to Brook Lopez on the perimeter and Howard makes the switch.
Lopez actually gets a step on Dwight here and drives to the rim.
Even with Lopez getting past him, Howard makes the effort and is able to catch up and block the layup attempt.
The Utah Jazz have swung the ball up to Big Al Jefferson and Dwight Howard closes the distance. Jefferson wants to drive on Howard hear, knowing he will over commit to closing out.
Howard goes belly up while trying to move his feet, Jefferson blowing by rather effortlessly.
Jefferson has no problem getting an easy layup with Howard nowhere near being close to making a play on him.
Andrew Bynum has Dwight Howard in the post in an isolation. Howard is in a great stance and Bynum has no choice but to...
PASS IT OUT AND RE-POST! WHAT IS THIS ANDREW BYNUM TRICKERY?! Howard keeps his body pressed against Bynum, but once Kobe dumps the ball back in to Drew he's going to spin baseline on Howard.
Howard gets up and blocks the attempt and the rebound falls into the hands of Jason Richardson. An impressive display of post defense, but something even more impressive comes after the play here. Howard was deep in the paint and just went up and blocked a 7 footer in the post.
Yet, in transition, he's the Magic player ahead of the pack.
To play the compare and contrast game, here's Dwight not having to do much defensively as Javale McGee takes a mid-range jumper.
Kobe Bryant grabs the defensive rebound.
And there's Dwight Howard, the last man up the court.
This is just a handful of plays from Dwight, though, and cherry picking plays to show what we want them to show can be a dangerous slope to avoid. A clear takeaway, however, especially in the last set of plays is that Dwight Howard isn't getting up the court like he has in the past. When his back was opened up for surgery, he also had severe nerve damage in his leg, so bad in fact that he said his leg felt "dead" and he couldn't do a simple calf raise. With his inability to recover after jumping, or move as quickly as a whole as he once did it begins to look as if his leg strength and conditioning is the biggest issue he's facing as a professional athlete. It's clearly taking a toll on his defense, and he isn't nearly the explosive defender he once was.
So, here we are again, only falling deeper down this rabbit hole by the word. Synergy tells us that Dwight Howard is, by the numbers, a better defender this season than he was in 2010-2011 when he won his third straight Defensive Player of the Year award. Going over the stats of that Orlando Magic team in comparison to the current team he's on, he isn't rebounding on the defensive end at the same percentage, and is problematic. A key factor in the Magic's defense was simply rebounding the ball and not giving up second chance points. How often are we screaming at the Lakers for giving up an offensive board and the subsequent second-chance points?
There are no easy answers when chasing this white rabbit of a statistic, only an extremely blurry picture put together from many different avenues. However, there is ONE specific stat that confirms what the eyes tell us, what the numbers tell us, and what our heads tell us. A stat called defensive rating (DRtg), which is now openly referenced as we dive deeper into the analytics of basketball, quantifies what everything points to in regards to Dwight Howard. It was developed by Dr. Dean Oliver, a Ph.D out of the University of North Carolina. DRtg is an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions that is crunched down by his 4 step formula (that can be found here).
What does Dwight Howard's Defensive Rating tell us in these two seasons we're comparing? When Dwight won his Defensive Player of the Year trophy last, he had a DRtg of 94. Right now, with the Lakers, he has a DRtg of 101. Tim Duncan is leading the NBA in DRtg thus far in the 2012-2013 season with a 94.2 rating. Currently, Dwight Howard isn't even in the top 20 of defensive rating. The Dwight Howard of old would be leading the league right now with that 94.
It's clear that Dwight Howard isn't playing up to the level the Lakers were hoping for when they acquired the rehabilitating big man. While Synergy may show a quick snapshot saying otherwise, the remaining stats tell a different tale, and the eye test does as well. On the way out of this rabbit hole I've found myself buried so deep in, though, there was one final nugget I stumbled upon. Effective field goal percentage allowed while on and off the court.
Dwight Howard: 2012-2013
Oddly enough, the Lakers actually hold opponents nearly 4% lower in effective field goal percentage while Dwight Howard is on the bench.
Dwight Howard: 2010-2011
Yet, with the Magic, they actually were worse off without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year on the floor. A very common sense-like conclusion. Even stranger, the Lakers eFg% while Dwight Howard is off the court is actually better than Orlando's while he's on the floor. No Defensive Player of the Year should leave their team better defensively when they're off the court. Period.
Dwight Howard can't patch up every hole in every defense, and the Lakers are certainly springing leaks left and right with their poor play on that end of the floor. Everything points to Howard being a regressed version of the defensive anchor he once was, though, and the Lakers were built with the notion that he would be that guy for their defense. With January now at the half-way point, perhaps we'll start to see the progression with his health now that we're entering his actual projected return date. Or, maybe playing while being less than 100% has only slowed down the process. We don't know what 100% Dwight Howard in a Lakers uniform will look like, but so far, it isn't anything near his superstar defender days in Orlando. For now, it remains a vicious cycle: An inconsistent Dwight hurt's the Lakers defense, and an inconsistent Lakers defense hurts Dwight.
Now let me out of this hole. Please.
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