Dwight Howard is the best center in the league when healthy.
Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah all outperformed him during the 2012-13 campaign, but that's where the "when healthy" clause comes into play. An offseason of rest should allow D12 to regain his spot atop the positional rankings.
But why isn't he better?
This is a center who's made the All-Star team every year since 2007. He finished second in the MVP voting at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, and that coincided with his third straight Defensive Player of the Year award.
How many DPOYs can average 22.9 points per game? The answer is not many, but Dwight is part of that exclusive club.
At this point in his career, Howard should be a truly dominant player. He should be competing for MVPs instead of drawing headlines for his offseason indecisions decisions.
So, what happened?
He Still Can't Shoot
Dwight has now spent nine full seasons in the NBA and he still hasn't figured out how to shoot the basketball. It's a fairly fundamental skill, and it's shocking that a player who entered the league with such high potential has shown absolutely no improvement over the years.
That skill applies to two fundamental areas of the game.
First—and perhaps most obvious—comes at the charity stripe. That moniker is typically applied to the free-throw line because it gives players opportunities at free points, but it's a bit ironic when used in conjunction with D12's name. Or perhaps it's meant to be charitable to the other team?
When Howard entered the league, it was fairly excusable that he couldn't convert the freebies. He was quite clearly still developing, and he simply hadn't taken the time to focus on his foul shooting (read foul in multiple ways there, please) because he had more pressing concerns.
That excuse no longer exists.
Howard has been well below the league average (provided by Hoopdata.com for every year since 2006-07), and he's trending in the wrong direction. Mental blocks are superseding any work he's put into his game from the free-throw line, and he's become an incredible liability at the end of close contests.
At some point, this weakness has to be corrected if Howard wants to be considered elite. But his shooting woes don't just stop at the stripe; they extend to the regular course of play, as he struggles to make shots from anywhere outside the paint.
Throughout Howard's career, he's done absolutely nothing when he gets more than nine feet away from the basket.
For comparison's sake, David West made 136 shots from 16 to 23 feet during the 2012-13 campaign alone.
Howard's shooting not only hasn't improved over the years, but much like his free-throw shooting, it's gotten worse. Below you can see the heat map from his rookie season (on the left) juxtaposed with his one and only go-around with the Los Angeles Lakers, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
Those are supposed to be flipped around. Range should expand as a great player continues to develop throughout his career, not vice versa. Howard has stopped shooting jumpers entirely, and that's rather problematic for his offensive prowess since he hasn't exactly improved in the post.
Lack of Improvement in the Post
Thanks to Synergy Sports (subscription required), we can track exactly how Howard has fared in the post over the last few seasons by looking at his points per possession scored in post-up situations.
It's not pretty.
Howard received a nice boost in post production following the offseason in which he worked with NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon (2010), but his numbers have consistently declined since then. He simply hasn't been able to show off a wide arsenal of moves, and his touch isn't where it needs to be.
But the biggest problem is that Howard can be mentally thrown off his game with alarming frequency. He will make up his mind that he has to score, and he's willing to go one-on-five if that's what it takes. Couple that with a lack of high-level passing skills out of double-teams, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Take this postseason play against the San Antonio Spurs, for example.
Howard starts with the ball in his hands, but he's pretty far from the basket. So, as he almost always does in this situation, he faces up and starts thinking about how he's going to get to the baseline with a clear path to the rim.
Of course, the San Antonio defense has other plans.
Once Howard goes baseline, the entire unit collapses around him, completely free from worry that he'll kick the ball out for an open three-pointer. Just look how much space Tony Parker and Danny Green are giving their men.
Obviously they're aware that Howard only recorded assists on 56 three-pointers in 75 games while playing in a Mike D'Antoni offense, according to Hoopdata.com.
Howard is now completely smothered by the defense. So, what does he do?
He attempts to twirl around and put up an ill-advised shot at the rim, but it hits the bottom of the basket and has absolutely zero chance of going in. Chalk it up as another case in which Howard decided he had to shoot, so he did exactly that.
In another play against the Spurs' suffocating defense, Howard at least realizes that he probably shouldn't be shooting the ball with three defenders in his face. But by the time he does, it's too late.
Once more, Howard's decision is predetermined, quite possibly by the location of Tim Duncan in the middle of the paint.
He's looking baseline.
Again, Howard begins his move, and San Antonio collapses around him. The perimeter defenders aren't particularly worried about their assignments, so they give them a lot of space. If Howard could make the kick-out pass on target, it would be too much space to close in such a short time.
But that's not really a worry.
Howard gets completely trapped, and you'll notice that the entire San Antonio defense is facing him. They're only focused on D12's next decision.
The big man makes a bad pass out of the post, and Parker easily intercepts it then leads the fast break in the other direction.
These two plays, while only two of the 649 post-ups that Howard ran during his stint with the Lake Show, serve as a microcosm for his overall play. He has a limited set of moves, and he often refuses to adjust when the play breaks down.
Perhaps Olajuwon's help this offseason will turn his back-to-the-basket game around, but Howard still has a long way to go in this area. Especially when it's coupled with his lack of a consistent (or even adequate) jumper.
Unwillingness to Play to His Strengths
Take a look at the following graph, one that shows Howard's ranks around the league in certain situations according to Synergy. What do you think are the big man's strengths?
So it makes a lot of sense that last year, Dwight ran 649 post-ups and only 164 plays in which he served as the roll man in a pick-and-roll set, right?
This quote from Dave McMenamin's report for ESPN.com about Howard never wanting to be a Laker should be truly telling:
However, Nash said that X's and O's played just as big a part with Howard as health did.
"He didn't seem like he really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense, maybe because he had run one in Orlando for so long and he wanted to get in the post more," Nash said.
The 17-year veteran was skeptical that Houston would provide a drastically different offense for Howard to thrive in.
"We'll see," Nash said. "Houston runs a pick-and-roll offense and they are littered with shooting and can maybe space the floor more for him so he can have more opportunities inside with space."
Nash also defended Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, who called for Howard to run all of those pick-and-rolls and play the part of Amar'e Stoudemire, a plan from Nash and D'Antoni's days in Phoenix together.
The fact that Howard tired of a PnR offense is alarming. He should be playing to win, and that means utilizing his strengths as often as possible.
Howard had finished first, first and second in post-up situations before joining L.A., and he was still ninth while wearing purple and gold. But he didn't want to run a PnR offense?
This is a "Suck it up, Dwight" moment.
If Howard can actually start playing to his strengths, he'll finally become the dominant offensive player we've wanted him to become. At the very least, he'll be able to regain the near-MVP level that he was playing at when carrying the Orlando Magic into the NBA Finals.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned the big man's defense in a negative light even once throughout this article. That's because the only complaints would be completely nit-picking.
Howard is a truly elite defender, one capable of competing for Defensive Player of the Year even when injured and plagued by back pain throughout the season. Although he struggled in isolation sets last year, that was a result of diminished lateral mobility caused by the injuries, and it clearly stands out as an aberration.
He should be regaining his dominant defensive form now that he's had a full offseason to recover, and it's all about getting his offense back up to par for the Houston Rockets.
If he can do that, the Rockets should be strong contenders to advance to, at the very least, the Western Conference Finals.
Your move, Dwight.