With Dwight Howard recovering from back surgery, the Lakers have received a different version of the big man they saw in previous years in Orlando. Let’s break down the subtle differences in his game and how they’ve affected his play and the performance of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The biggest adjustment for D12 has come on the defensive end, where, oddly enough, he looks smaller on the court. It’s not that his size has diminished, rather that the amount of terrain he can cover has.
Once upon a time, opposing coaches would try to have Howard defend the pick-and-roll with the hope of obtaining even a small opportunity for an open jumper or chance to get to the rim.
Mind you, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year would often thwart all of those attempts because of both his quick feet and his long arms. Indeed, he would jump out on the ball-handler, raise his hands to remove all passing angles and quickly retreat back to his man once his teammate got free from the screen, all the while anchoring the paint to prevent any opposing player from getting a clean look anywhere remotely close to the basket.
That reality is a thing of the past.
Howard simply isn’t capable of executing that same type of precise defensive rotation this year. To be clear, he’s not an awful defender, but the fall from amazing to average has at times made him look as such.
The seven-time All-Star can no longer stay with perimeter players on ball screens and thus has to retreat around the free-throw line when defending the pick-and-roll. This essentially leaves his screened teammate on an island where he defends the action by his lonesome.
Players around the league have realized that Howard can be taken advantage of in these situations; thus, they dribble right by him whenever he does step up to help out in the screen-roll game.
It’s worth noting that even when ball-handlers come at him while he is retreating to the paint, they can still get by him because his feet just cannot keep up.
Another aspect where Howard has struggled in the Lakers’ defensive scheme is in his weak-side rotations.
When he was in Orlando, Howard always seemed to be at the right spot at the right time; in Los Angeles, his reduced speed and quickness have forced him to rotate either a second too early or a second too late. The end result is that he’s given up a few baskets right at the rim to perimeter players or simply allowed his man to score rather easily as a result of helping out too early.
Granted, the former member of the Magic has been better on this front as of late, waiting just long enough to go out and contest shots where he’s blocked them or altered them to some degree.
Again, this current version of Howard isn’t awful defensively. He allows the purple and gold to be at least average on this side of the ball, although he has spent far too much time relying on his hands rather than his feet, which has resulted in some terrible fouls and him riding the pine far more than he would like.
NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us that the Los Angeles Lakers allow 101.6 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the court, but once he heads to the bench, the figure climbs to 107.5 points per 100 possessions. For the sake of context, the amount surrendered with Dwight on the bench would rank 27th in a league of 30 teams.
In addition, with the superstar center on the court, the Lakers only allow a 59.2 percent conversion rate on shots at the rim, while the league average is 64.2 percent this season, which speaks to Howard's value in anchoring the paint.
On offense, Howard has managed to put up points via post-ups, lobs, offensive rebounds and pick-and-rolls much like he has throughout his career.
There are nonetheless some slight differences in his game as a result of his back surgery.
His usage rate (percentage of team’s possessions) is at its lowest since his second season in the league, but his turnover rate has increased in comparison to his two prior seasons.
His reduced mobility has made it easier for defenders to swipe the ball away from him in post-ups because he’s not attacking his opponents as quickly as before. Synergy Sports tells us that D12 turns the ball over on 19.3 percent of his post-ups, whereas two years ago (his last full healthy season) that occurred 14.5 percent of the time.
In addition, his diminished explosiveness has resulted in him being a little bit more grounded as well as a little slower when diving to the basket in the pick-and-roll, resulting in more opportunities for opponents to swipe. So far this season, Howard has coughed up the ball on 10.5 percent of his pick-and-roll catches. Again, two seasons ago that figure stood at seven percent, according to Synergy Sports.
He is still converting at the same high rate as before, but his turnovers are part of the reason that the Lakers score more points with him on the bench so far this season, although their field-goal percentage is higher with him on the court.
The tricky thing about Howard this year is that it’s awfully difficult to look at him and not think about what he was just two seasons ago, when he was arguably the second- or third-best player in the NBA.
If we compare him to what he once was, it’s obvious that he is a far cry from the player that just decimated front lines on both ends of the court.
However, if we simply look at him today and judge him against his peers, he is still a terrific physical specimen, outstanding finisher, great rebounder and good shot-blocker. In a nutshell, he is still better than at least 90 percent of the centers in the league, but our collective memories tell us otherwise.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.