Is Dwight Howard Really Still the Best Center in the NBA?

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Is Dwight Howard Really Still the Best Center in the NBA?

In one word, yes. 

Dwight Howard may no longer be the most popular center in basketball, as he was during his time with the Orlando Magic, but his grip on the positional crown has yet to be loosened to the point that he's lost it entirely. 

During his one and only season with the Los Angeles Lakers, D12 averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.4 blocks with a 19.4 PER. He played great defense, even when he was using his hands instead of his feet with alarming frequency, and those rebounding figures were enough to lead the league while Kevin Love recuperated from his hand injuries. 

And he did all of that while playing with an injured back that required a custom-made compression shirt just to keep his shoulder in a position where he could remain on the court. He put up those monstrous numbers despite being surrounded by constant turmoil, both in the locker room and on the court due to an extreme lack of chemistry and incessant change.

Howard was eventually voted onto the All-NBA Third Team, which was rather impressive given the extenuating circumstances.

Personally, he wasn't on my ballot, coming just shy of Tim Duncan (First Team), Marc Gasol (Second Team) and Joakim Noah (left off entirely). But it was a close race between the top four, and it becomes an endurance battle between five candidates for the 2013-14 season.  

All of them will come up shy of D12, though. 

 

5. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Let's just say that the second half of the 2012-13 season went a little better for Roy Hibbert than the opening stanza. And that's putting it kindly. 

  PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Pre-All-Star Break 10.0 8.3 1.5 0.5 2.6 41.4
Post-All-Star Break 15.7 8.2 1.3 0.4 2.5 50.8
Postseason 17.0 9.9 1.4 0.2 1.9 51.1

As the season progressed, Hibbert just kept improving, to the point that he merits discussion in the race for the title of best center in the Association. 

The reason for that isn't his defense but rather his offense. At this point, most NBA fans are aware that Hibbert is one of the best rim-protectors in basketball, especially after seeing him turn away Carmelo Anthony's dunk attempt right at the rim. 

Hibbert is a defensive stud, and that's where he makes his living. However, it's his improving offense that allows him to enter into this exclusive fraternity of elite big men. 

It's also offense that holds him back. 

The other centers in these rankings are all dominant offensive players for one reason or another. Some might not be elite scorers, but they make up for the difference with their heady play passing the ball to teammates. 

Hibbert appears to be working his way into the former category (that mid-range jumper is looking better and better), but he's not there yet. And his passing chops aren't going to cut it. 

When passing from a standstill, Hibbert is perfectly fine. He can hit his targets (the majority of his assists come on kick-outs to shooters when the defense collapses around him), but he doesn't actively create plays for them. He also struggles to see the passing lanes being shut down, as you can see below. 

All screenshots from Synergy's video databases.

Once Hibbert receives the ball in the post, Mario Chalmers collapses to bring the double-team. The big man can't work his way toward the basket, and he's not going to be hitting any sort of Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaway

Passing is the best option here. 

As Hibbert faces up, he puts himself on the move. Look how much ground he's already covered by comparing his positioning in the second screenshot to his placement in the first. 

The Georgetown product is no longer at a standstill, and that makes it harder for him to focus on seeing the entire court. 

Case in point. 

He completely fails to notice Dwyane Wade, who steals the ball on its path toward Lance Stephenson, rockets down the court and embarrasses his defender with a brutal hop step at the basket. 

Unless Hibbert either continues to emerge as a scorer beyond the point he performed at during the playoffs (especially against the Miami Heat) or drastically improves his facilitating skills, moving out of the fringe elite is going to be an impossibility. 

 

4. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

While Joakim Noah's defense and passing game help push him well past Roy Hibbert, they still leave him trailing three more players at the position. Last season, Hibbert was essentially Noah without the distributing skills, so the comparison between the two really isn't that close. 

And until Noah proves that he's not an offensive liability, it's not going to be close between him and the next player in the rankings, either. 

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Noah scored only 0.85 points per possession during the 2012-13 season. That's a mark that leaves him in 309th place. 

While the former Florida Gator is a fantastic finisher when rolling to the hoop in a pick-and-roll set, that's the only part of his scoring game that is even remotely competent. He was the No. 156 player in post-up situations, No. 138 after corralling an offensive rebound, No. 134 in transition and No. 163 in isolation. 

And even those types of plays look good when contrasted against his ability to function as a spot-up shooter. Noah scored 0.86 points per possession there, which left him as the 245th most effective spot-up player in basketball. 

That's just not going to cut it, as defenses have no fear of Noah beating them. If he's anywhere but in the paint or actively involved in the play, the offensive set devolves into four-on-five. 

Everything starts out pretty normally, and Noah is being guarded by Chris Andersen. 

After the long-haired center sets a screen, Birdman makes no pretense of staying with him. He plays help defense, and no one bothers to pick up Noah.

At the end of the cut, Noah is left wide open. There's no one within two zip codes of him even after the ball has travelled from out of bounds into his hands. 

He clangs the shot off the front of the rim. 

That's not going to cut it.

The remaining big men are all dominant on the less glamorous end of the court, marginalizing Noah's biggest skill in these rankings, and they're more complete offensive packages. Two of the three can hit these shots, and Howard wouldn't be caught dead in this situation. 

At the very least, D12 would end up passing the ball immediately if he found himself with the rock in his hands from 21 feet out. 

 

3. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies 

2. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

I'm grouping these two dominant centers together because their fatal flaw is the same. And once more, it lies on the offensive end of the court. 

Based on these numbers courtesy of Hoopdata.com, which type of production would you rather have?

  Points per game Assists per game Assists that lead to 3-pointers per game
Player A 14.1 4.0 0.8
Player B 17.1 1.4 0.7
Player C 17.8 2.7 0.5
Player D 22.9 1.4 0.7

Based on those numbers, Player D accounted for the most points per game: 26.3. Player C (23.7) was in second place, trailed by Player A (22.9) and Player B (20.6). 

But who were they? 

From top to bottom in that chart, the first three players are Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan during the 2012-13 season. Yep, that's D12 coming in last place. 

However, there are a few more factors that work into the equation, and then there's the yet-to-be-revealed Player D. 

Let's look at those players once more, this time with names and efficiency numbers factored in. 

  Points per game accounted for Turnovers per game True shooting percentage
Marc Gasol 22.9 2.0 55.9
Dwight Howard 20.6 3.0 57.3
Tim Duncan 23.7 2.1 55.4
Player D 26.3 3.4 61.6

Now things are a little more interesting, right? 

With turnovers and true shooting percentage (the best shooting efficiency metric, as it factors in three-point attempts and shots from the free-throw line) factored in, things get significantly more complicated.

Are Player D's increased efficiency and points accounted for enough to cancel out his extra turnovers? Are Tim Duncan's extra points accounted for enough to mitigate the slight increase in turnovers and decrease in true shooting percentage when compared to Marc Gasol?

Personally, I say yes to the final question. But it's a more subjective statement now, and that speaks to how closely those two are clumped together. 

But Player D is still way ahead of the pack. I can live with the cough-ups when a player is giving me that much more positive production as well. It's all about that combination of volume and efficiency. 

 

1. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Player D is Dwight Howard during the 2010-11 season. That was the last time that he was fully healthy and motivated, making it the closest comparison we have for the upcoming 2013-14 campaign.

During 2011-12, Howard was fighting through injuries and playing for a franchise that he wasn't interested in helping out. In 2012-13, he was on the Lakers, and that situation has been documented numerous times, including at the beginning of this article. 

With the Houston Rockets, D12 should be back to his peak form, and that means that he leaves the rest of the NBA's centers in the dust.

He's presumably healthy, or else he wouldn't have spent the offseason working with Hakeem Olajuwon. He wants to be in Houston, or else he wouldn't have signed there. And, perhaps most importantly, he's surrounded by a system that is eerily similar to the one used in his prime Orlando days. 

The Magic surrounded D12 with potent shooters who could alleviate the defensive pressure. If you watch this highlight package of his best plays from the 2011-12 season, you can see just how little the defense is able to collapse around him. 

Is Dwight Howard the best center in basketball?

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All of the dunks come with only one defender in his vicinity. The others just can't afford to leave the gunners, and the same will be true in Houston. Plus, D12 never played with an offensive player as talented as James Harden while he was in Orlando. 

Does Howard have weaknesses? Of course, as even Superman is hindered by Kryptonite. Everyone has weaknesses. 

But he covers them up better than any of the other centers in basketball, and that will be especially true once he regains his old form. Howard wasn't the best big man during the ill-fated 2012-13 campaign, but chalk that up as a situation-driven aberration in an otherwise stellar career. 

The field has gotten closer to Howard, but it still hasn't completely caught up to him. 

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