Dwight Howard has arrived on the Pacific Coast and is ready to help the Los Angeles Lakers regain the glory they earned in the not-so-distant past. Superman has plenty of strengths, and defense is most certainly not filling the kryptonite role for the league's most dominant center.
The Lakers have been a solid defensive team over the last few years, finishing 13th in defensive rating during the 2011-12 season, which was their worst ranking in five years. Now, however, any ranking that contains more than a single digit will be viewed as a massive disappointment.
Howard has the remarkable ability to single-handedly—well, really he's using two hands—turn a lackluster defensive team into a strong one. He did so year after year with the Orlando Magic, despite the presence of a few players who subscribe to the "Defense-is-what-less-skilled-players-get-paid-to-do" school of thought.
According to 82games.com, only nine of the Magic's top 20 five-man units during the 2011-12 campaign allowed less than a point per possession:
|1||Chris Duhon||J.J. Redick||Jason Richardson||Glen Davis||Dwight Howard||0.81|
|2||Chris Duhon||Von Wafer||Quentin Richardson||Glen Davis||Dwight Howard||0.82|
|3||Jameer Nelson||J.J. Redick||Jason Richardson||Glen Davis||Dwight Howard||0.84|
|4||Chris Duhon||J.J. Redick||Hudo Turkoglu||Ryan Anderson||Dwight Howard||0.89|
|5||Chris Duhon||Jason Richardson||Hedo Turkoglu||Ryan Anderson||Dwight Howard||0.89|
|6||Chris Duhon||J.J. Redick||Quentin Richardson||Earl Clark||Glen Davis||0.93|
|7||Chris Duhon||J.J. Redick||Jason Richardson||Ryan Anderson||Glen Davis||0.98|
|8||Jameer Nelson||J.J. Redick||Quentin Richardson||Ryan Anderson||Dwight Howard||0.99|
|9||Jameer Nelson||Jason Richardson||Hedo Turkoglu||Glen Davis||Dwight Howard||0.99|
A couple of names keep popping up again and again, but Howard is the anchor of these units. NBA.com's advanced stats tell us that the Orlando Magic posted a defensive rating of 99.3 while Howard was on the court. That number skyrocketed to 106.2 when he was catching his breath on the pine.
This is no fluke, though. Howard's three Defensive Player of the Year selections tell us that, as do his five berths on the NBA's All-Defensive squads.
What makes Howard so special on the less glamorous end of the court is his ability to not only shut down his own man, but also to serve as an insurance policy for the other four players on the court.
Less skilled perimeter defenders can gamble more knowing that D12 is waiting in the paint to erase any mistakes that might occur and provide them with a tabula rasa.
It's here that his true value lies, especially with a defensive liability like Steve Nash expected to operate the point for the majority of the 48 minutes.
Howard's ability to block shots from the weak side is unmatched in the NBA. If you include the number of shots that are altered by his sheer presence (and the threat of his swats leaving a basketball-sized imprint on a driver's forehead), then the total impact he makes on the weak side alone is staggering.
Over the last few seasons, the Lakers have developed a true need for a center who is both willing and able to play help defense.
The perimeter defense of the guards has been porous at times, leading to open drives to the iron. If no one steps over, it's an easy two points. If another wing player helps out, the rotations have been poor and a jump shooter is left open in one of the corners.
Andrew Bynum was able to help remedy this problem for the Lakers last season, but not nearly to the same extent that his replacement will be able to. Furthermore, Howard makes impacts in other areas of the defensive game.
Seeing as Howard stands nearly seven-feet tall and is a true physical specimen with shoulders that Hercules would kill for, this might be somewhat surprising: Howard's most impressive defensive traits are his lateral quickness and spatial recognition.
When the play extends beyond the free-throw line and Howard is thrown into a pick-and-roll situation, he isn't fazed in the slightest. Instead, he thrives.
Howard is quick enough to show on the ball-handler coming off the screen and still recover to either catch up with the rolling man he's responsible for or sprint out to contest a supposedly open jumper. Given the prominence of PnRs in today's game, this is vital to the Lakers' efforts.
Pau Gasol is a solid post defender in his own right, which gives Dwight the opportunity to step outside of the paint and continue to thrive as the league's best defender of the pick-and-roll.
Howard's impact with the Lakers will go beyond however many rejections he ends up averaging per contest. Just like with Tyson Chandler and the New York Knicks, Howard and the Lakers will play with a renewed vigor while checking their opponents.
The points per game allowed will go down just by virtue of the man in the center of the paint, but fast-break opportunities will rise as well.
L.A. will have more freedom to gamble for steals, both by defending aggressively on the ball and jumping into passing lanes, because of the goalie behind those perimeter defenders.
That will lead to more run-outs, and we all know how deadly those can be when the ball is in the hands of Nash.
It may be easy to focus on the pick-and-roll offense that the Lakers run and the insane offensive capabilities of the team, but don't forget to watch for the defensive impact that Howard has in purple and gold.
If Kobe successfully earns his Michael Jordan-tying sixth ring, Howard's impact will be one of the leading causes.