Dwight Howard deserves a pass—at least so far this season.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year Award winner has seen his mobility affected because of a lingering back injury and, thus, has not had the lift that he’s displayed in previous years. (h/t The Sporting News)
Despite his physical shortcomings this season, the big man has still found ways to be effective and productive. Granted, he has been a shadow of his former self, but he’s still performed like a very good—if not great—center.
But there is still a small problem with Howard as it pertains to his play so far in in his ninth NBA season: he hasn’t stacked up well against history.
If we measure the former Olympian against current centers, we will more than likely come to the conclusion that his performance in recent years elevates him above just about every player at his position.
Mind you, if we compare the Lakers center against other stud big men that shared the court with him in the last few years, the gap not only narrows, but an argument could be made that Howard is the worst of the elite.
Consider that Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan will one day make it into the Hall of Fame, and then remember that both played at extremely high levels during the regular season and the playoffs.
Garnett and Duncan have dominated playoff games at both ends of the court, not only with their physical gifts, but also with their smarts and mental toughness. Whenever their teams are nearly on the brink of letting a game slip away, these talented big men find ways to stop the bleeding and carry their respective teams through difficult times.
Garnett commands the attention of every opponent because he has to be accounted for in every single situation on the court. Whether he is on the low block or defending a pick-and-roll, his presence on the court always dramatically alters the game plan of opposing teams—and yet no one has ever truly figured out how to contain him, even to this day.
Duncan has always had the same effect on games, routinely torturing teams with an array of low post moves on offense. He also completely shuts down opposing teams on the other side of the ball with his ability to defend the paint without fouling, and he also covers ground on the perimeter without giving opponents any type of advantage.
If we dig a little into the past and think of players such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, the one characteristic that immediately comes to mind for both was their level of dominance on the basketball court.
While "the Dream" was a terror on both sides of the ball, "the Diesel" focused most of his attention toward his offense, and was incredibly destructive against the opposition in doing so. His defense fluctuated between good and great but most of his energy always revolved around putting the ball in the basket.
And really, therein lies the problem for Dwight Howard.
He is more Alonzo Mourning, than say Shaquille O’Neal, and that bothers people.
His physical gifts are perhaps the most impressive that we have ever seen in NBA history at the center position. D12’s athleticism, speed, quickness and strength are just breathtaking, but they mostly get displayed on defense.
His lack of an effective back-to-the-basket game, combined with his apparent inability to completely dominate a game directly from the low post, automatically make him a knockoff big man in the eyes of many—given that he does not fit the mold that most have grown accustomed to.
The prototypical stud big man is a devastating figure on the low block that can waver between average and great on defense.
And much like Shaquille O’Neal said, Howard is seen more as a pick-and-roll center, so he tends to not garner the accolades that the greats before him earned.
Fair or not, this is why Dwight Howard must absolutely win a championship in order to be accepted in the pantheon of dominant centers.
Before that last statement gets lambasted and earns itself the label of "idiotic," allow me to make this point: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were mold breakers in their own right that absolutely needed a championship ring to validate their credentials with the media.
Bryant was the spectacular player that resembled Michael Jordan but instead took the most difficult shots possible, and often times, refused to defer in crunch time to teammates. James was perhaps the most dominant perimeter player since MJ, but he was far too willing to make the pass to the open man late in ball games instead of taking the shot himself.
Consequently, both players faced a heavy dose of criticism because they failed to fit the mold. But once they won titles, the criticism became far less frequent. Kobe and LeBron’s championship performances have afforded them the right to break away from the Jordan mold and be judged for their amazing talent, as opposed to how they stack up versus the legend of Mike.
Hence, Howard is now in the same boat.
In order to finally earn some praise, recognition and, more importantly, some respect from his predecessors and peers, he will have to break the big man mold and win a title.
Fair or not, it’s the only way that fans and media members will stop comparing him to the past.