Dwight Howard isn't what he used to be.
And by no fault of his own. Howard's as physically dominant as ever, but he's become a less valuable commodity in today's NBA—even if his paycheck suggests otherwise. Big men as we know them have been fundamentally repurposed, tasked with a job description that doesn't suit Howard.
His rim protection and explosiveness notwithstanding, it's premature to call D12 the most important big man in the game, even if he's in some sense still its very best. In his argument that the "death of the NBA big man has been exaggerated," USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt profiles how the role of the modern center has changed:
He still exists, just no longer in the traditional sense of "Go plant those size 17 sneakers on the low block and stay there."
He can shoot, pass, dribble, create and defend. He can play inside and outside, allowing teams to spread the floor and create space for shooters – the de facto base offense for many NBA teams.
Not exactly a depiction of Howard's game, impressive as it is. Some will balk at the mere insinuation that Howard's anything less than the best at what he does. After all, he was rated the third-best player in the league by ESPN's player rankings coming into 2012-13. So there shouldn't be anything to discuss here, right?
Only if you believe all the hype.
Hype, Reality and Never the Twain Shall Meet
Even as Hollywood's Man of Steel dominated the box offices, the NBA's own Superman is set to earn $88 million over the course of his four-year deal with the Houston Rockets, per USA Today's Sam Amick. But the better indicator of Howard's perceived value is just how persistently his suitors pursued him in two consecutive offseasons—as a trade target in 2012 and free agent in 2013.
Part of Houston's charm was the opportunity to learn from post savants Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon. It makes for a great story, but it also makes you wonder: What has Dwight Howard ever done that reminded you of McHale or Olajuwon? Are we getting sold on the same kind of PR campaign that had Lakers fans going a year ago?
Then, the plan was for Howard to work with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of Olajuwon's few rivals when it comes to post legends. Apparently, that didn't go remarkably well.
It's become a pattern with Howard. There's a gap between the cheery outlooks and what happens when things go wrong, when coaches start getting fired or getting blamed. It's a good thing Howard's taken a liking to Kevin McHale for now, but what happens when the Rockets lose some games and Dwight gets fussy?
Since his lone finals appearance in 2009, Dwight Howard has produced everything but championship results. That's partly because of what the NBA's become, though—a league where big men increasingly prefer the high post and actually take some shots while they're there.
Even Centers Have to Shoot Sometimes
Dwight Howard has done pretty well for a guy who can't shoot playing a game that's mostly about shooting. Why bother shooting when you're big, strong and quick enough to walk right up to the basket and take care of business?
The important takeaway isn't the prevalence of red blotches. It's how few field-goal attempts originated from those blotches. You could pardon Howard for having limited range, but he's a total non-factor from virtually anywhere outside the restricted area. Even if you believe Howard's better than big men like Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol, it's no coincidence their teams had successful postseasons.
When they're stationed at the top of the key, defenders have to pay attention—opening up opportunities for high-low plays, space for penetration, the always-nifty pick-and-pop option and so on. Here's a look at how Gasol did it last season.
Note the similarities with Duncan.
Granted, neither Gasol nor Duncan shoot as efficiently as Howard, but their far more expansive shot selection creates a number of secondary and tertiary advantages for the rest of their teams. Additionally, Howard's penchant for making easy shots is sabotaged by the fact he doesn't get nearly enough of them.
In 2012-13, 11 centers averaged more field-goal attempts than Howard—including his 22-year-old replacement in Orlando, Nikola Vucevic. Though he's an efficient scorer from the field, far too many of his opportunities come from the line instead.
Only so much could be blamed on Mike D'Antoni's system or Kobe Bryant's selfishness. The rest is rightfully blamed on Howard attempting 9.5 free throws a contest, good for second among all players last season. Most would be thrilled to go to the line so frequently, but making free throws has long been Dwight's kryptonite.
The rest of the league knows it, too, liberally sending him to the charity stripe as a measure of last—and sometimes first—resort.
Howard's had nine professional seasons to change that, hiring a personal shooting coach in 2011 to apparently no avail. He's even talked it out with a psychiatrist, explaining to the Los Angeles Times' T.J. Simers in June that, "I just think too much."
If it's thinking that's to blame for all Howard's missed free throws, he must be a pretty smart guy. He's missed a lot of free throws.
Unfortunately, they've come at a cost. Howard's a late-game liability and his efficiency around the basket is routinely foiled by third-string centers viciously hacking him. In important late-game situations, Dwight becomes a sideshow, with constant trips to the stripe destroying his team's offensive rhythm.
None of this means Howard's ability to play basketball is overrated. The inflating starts to happen when we believe his ability is synonymous with winning titles.
Not so much anymore.
The Modern-Day NBA Champion
Recent history unambiguously demonstrates that elite big men aren't essential to winning titles and that those who help most share little in common with Howard. Even Kevin McHale once noted (to Rockets.com's Jason Friedman) that, "you can play inside-out different ways," ultimately describing the drive-and-kick game that typified last season's Rockets.
Throwback centers like Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol will occasionally inspire nostalgic reaffirmations of size and its playoff ramifications, but the question isn't just whether you need big men—it's whether you need ones like Dwight.
The Miami Heat suggest otherwise.
Miami has cashed in on two of three finals appearances even as Chris Bosh increasingly plays more like a spread-4 than a real center. There's plenty to like about Udonis Haslem and Chris Anderson, but they aren't All-Stars.
Other champions and finalists yield similar conclusions.
The San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan has always done a fair amount of his scoring from the baseline and high post. Miami's previous Western Conference opponents boasted centers like Tyson Chandler and Kendrick Perkins, fine players in their own rights, but defensive specialists to be sure.
Dating back to 1990, only a handful of centers played starring roles in helping their teams to the finals: Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal and Howard himself. Ewing and Robinson made their appearances later in their careers and were surrounded with help. Olajuwon was still dominant, but he also had that legendary mid-range game.
In over 20 years worth of historical referents, only Shaq stands out as a model for what Howard could be—a truly dominant big man who scores almost exclusively within 10 feet of the basket. With James Harden angling to take Kobe's torch, could Howard finally follow in Shaq's footsteps?
Shaq He Is Not
Some things can't be taught, even by the great McHale or Olajuwon.
Shaquille O'Neal averaged over 30 points per game in three postseasons, all deep runs of at least 13 games. To put that in perspective, the most Howard has ever averaged in the postseason was 27 in 2011—a stretch of just six games. He posted just over 20 points a game during Orlando's 2009 title push, a better sample of his playoff production.
In their finest years, O'Neal and Howard put up similar defensive numbers in the playoffs, and they both rebounded at remarkable rates.
The difference is that Shaq regularly took games over as a scorer. That he did so with Kobe around is all the more impressive. Whereas Howard has averaged just 11.4 field-goal attempts per game in the playoffs, O'Neal once averaged 22 attempts over the course of 23 games in 2000. That kind of ridiculousness just isn't in Howard's DNA.
Houston fans should be proud to now have one of the league's very best defenders at a position where defense changes games. They'll rest assured that between Howard and Omer Asik, the Rockets will out-rebound opponents more often than not.
And we'll all think of the Rockets as contenders—whether they really are or not. Fans again have hope, a belief that the Rockets matter. They'll get a good show, too, one way or the other.
But they won't get another Shaq.