On December 15, 2015, Chris Sheridan reported “Dwight Howard is extremely unhappy in Houston playing second fiddle to alpha dog James Harden.” He furthers that the Miami Heat are currently focused on obtaining Demarcus Cousins, but if they cannot achieve that, “Heat president Pat Riley is going to turn Whiteside into the best available center he can find. Not only does Howard fit that bill, he also would be placed back in position to be an alpha dog for the first time since he left the Sunshone [sic] State after the 2011-12 season.”
Dan Feldman of NBC Sports claimed that Houston is concerned about Howard’s ability to opt-out of his contract this summer and already has a viable replacement center in Clint Capela, thus suggesting that Houston would be willing to trade Dwight.
Regardless, talking to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, Howard said that the reports of him being “extremely unhappy…” “lies.” This prompted Chris Sheridan to defend his source followed by Rockets coaches defending his role on the team.
The accuracy of these trade rumors are dubious at best. On one hand, it makes logical sense for the Rockets to attempt to get something out of Howard in case he leaves. On the other, Houston’s biggest hope to return to NBA prominence is through Howard. Thus, this article will ask the question, what is Howard’s value in this league?
First, nine out of the top ten lineups who have played at least 100 minutes play with a traditional center.
Figure 1 via NBA.com/stats
The issue, though, is when the number of minutes played is reduced to 50, another picture emerges.
Figure 2 via NBA.com/stats
Now, you may be asking yourself, most of those teams also play with a traditional center, so “why does that matter?” The answer to that question is because the best NBA lineup that has played at least fifty minutes does not play with one traditional center. Thus, when a team is valuing Howard, they need to keep that in mind.
This gets even more important, because when you carefully examine the first list, there are only six teams with a traditional post-up center. The second list has eight, though, which could be a refutation. In summation, a good center in today’s NBA will have to be able to guard both small-ball and traditional lineups.
With that said, let’s examine how Dwight measures up as a perimeter defender and post defender. I will begin by using the data from last season, due to the back injury Howard suffered this year.
Figure 3 via NBA.com/stats
What this means is that, last year, the opponent shot better from every spot on the floor against Dwight other than shots inside ten feet. For comparison’s sake, during the playoffs last year, Timofey Mozgov’s percentage difference on shots inside ten feet was -9.6%. That means teams shot 9.6% worse with Mozgov guarding them inside of ten feet than they did on a regular basis. Dwight Howard’s difference last season was -4.1%. Thus, a starting caliber but not all-star level center was actually better defensively within ten feet of the hoop than Howard.
The most revealing aspect of that chart is that opponents’ shoot ten percent better against Howard outside of fifteen feet than they do regularly. For a league that has an increasing number of “stretch big men” that is highly problematic.
A look at this year’s metrics is interesting:
Figure 4 via NBA.com/stats
Dwight Howard’s statistics this season have actually flipped. He is much worse inside ten feet, however, is doing a better job defending midrange and three-point shots. This is probably a result of the back issues and being unable to be physical in the post. As I watch the Rockets-Lakers game tonight, Reggie Miller put it best, “Howard needs to play post-to-post, not free-throw line to free-throw line.” The reason this is important is because only 28.6% of Dwight Howard’s opponents’ shots come from outside of fifteen feet.
Thus, for a player that over the past two years has been, at best, a mediocre defensive player, how has his offense been? This season Dwight Howard is averaging 6.9 touches per game inside the painted area and is shooting 65.1% on field-goal attempts from the painted area. Here is the issue, though, he only passes on 11.7% of these post opportunities. That is the 12th worst percentage of all active NBA centers.
Figure 5 via NBA.com/stats
Figure 6 via NBA.com/stats
Thus, when you compare the Centers who receive the top-ten touches inside the painted area per game, Dwight Howard does nothing special. He is a well-below average passer inside the painted area and an above average scorer.
Consequently, due to Dwight Howard’s at best mediocre defense, and slightly above average offense, his value in today’s NBA is limited. Perhaps a team like Boston, who lacks any sort of interior presence, could utilize Howard. Regardless, it seems difficult to believe that any NBA team would attempt a mid-season trade to snag the man who once dressed up as Superman during an NBA dunk contest.