Did last year’s mess in Los Angeles stain his stature that much? Was it the lingering effects of a back surgery Howard’s now nearly two years removed from? Or, however unfair yet explicit a reason this may be, do the last several years of babyish off-court behavior make rewarding Howard’s play feel inappropriate?
Howard won his first Defensive Player of the Year award five years ago at the age of 23. He won it again at 24, and greedily grabbed his third the following season. Nobody Howard’s size could move the way he did during that time. He acted as an 800-degree barbed wire fence in the paint—if fences could leap three feet in the air and glide sideways across a hardwood floor.
Those years were devastating for opposing ball-handlers and big men alike. Nobody scored on Howard’s Orlando Magic with ease, which strangely brings us to yet another issue clouding his contention for this year’s award: people prefer comparing 2014 Howard to 2009 Howard instead of his contemporary competition.
Believe it or not, Howard isn’t going up against a 24-year-old version of himself this season, because that’s impossible. More than a handful of talented players will deservedly find themselves “in the conversation,” and a few will even be the subject of well-crafted think pieces filled with valid points as to why Nominee X deserves the most attention. (You're sorta reading one.)
Houston’s center may not win the award, or even receive a single first place vote, but he deserves consideration for sensational play all year long. Maybe his own coach agrees? Or maybe not, as you probably remember Kevin McHale heaping praise upon Noah instead. As told to ESPN's Scott Powers:
"[Noah] has played very well. He should be defensive player of the year. He's done a great job with these guys. They've been winning a lot just on his energy and effort, his kind of determination and toughness. Those are all qualities everybody appreciates."
Let’s start with a look at how Howard protects the rim. Opponents are shooting 62.2 percent in the restricted area with Howard on the floor, a number that’d rank 22nd in the league. But that percentage falls to 47.8 when he’s actually guarding the rim.
Of all players who contest at least 8.0 field goal attempts at the rim per game, only Hibbert, Ibaka and Robin Lopez are better. Context always matters when throwing numbers like these out there, and as the anchor of a defensive grouping that implodes whenever Howard or Omer Asik isn’t on the court, his value is enormous and his job is that much more difficult trying to correct the shortcomings of his teammates.
For example: Howard’s 1.8 blocks per game are seventh highest in the league, but he’s scaled back on the hunt. Whenever Howard leaves his man to contest a shot, his own man becomes free to grab an offensive rebound.
Howard can’t do everything, and with less experienced players such as Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas missing rotations down to cover Howard’s assignment, there are countless instances where he’ll instead opt for proper rebounding position.
Another case where context matters and numbers can’t tell the whole story: Watch these two clips.
Both show two things: why scoring over Howard is so difficult, and why defense is a team-oriented grind.
After Wade misses his first few attempts, the Heat retain possession and Patrick Beverley loses track of Wade on a baseline cut even after Howard points out instruction. Help is forced, and the result is a swift dish to a blurring LeBron James for the dunk.
In the second clip, we see Chandler Parsons getting beat by a LeBron James spin move in transition. Howard drops off Chris Andersen to contest and prevent the world’s best player from getting off a high percentage shot at the rim, but a defense is only as strong as its weakest link.
James Harden is more times than not that weakest link. Here he drops way too far into the paint, leaving Chris Bosh wide open beyond the three-point line. Harden matches up with Bosh as Houston shifts to the other end, but decides to ignore him as James makes his move on the other side.
Rebounding tends to be overlooked when discussing the act of stopping an opponent, but it’s the entire process’s final and most difficult step. Howard ranks seventh in defensive rebound rate, and gobbles up 68.7 percent of all rebounds per chance—fourth highest among players with at least 15 rebound chances per game.
He ends a crap ton of possessions that could otherwise turn into offensive rebounds and chaotic collapse. This is important and must be factored in.
The Rockets function as a top-10 defense and, overall, opponents shoot just 44.0 percent on them (fifth stingiest in the league). How to explain this? Just check out this ultra-scientific pie chart for some answers.
Howard's not only an equally destructive force compared to peers, but his worth within the context of Houston's status as a title contender is incredible on the defensive end. Is he as good now as he was in year's past? Probably not, but that's an irrelevant question.
The numbers are impressive yet not good enough to make giving Howard his fourth Defensive Player of the Year trophy a no-brainer. Davis leads the league in block percentage and covers just about every square inch of the court with two arms that look like tentacles; Hibbert is still a mountain, albeit one that might be crumbling; Ibaka continues to improve his weak side awareness and Noah is simply a beast.
All of them have far more strengths than weaknesses and are integral chess pieces helping their team get stops. Still, Howard's been game-changing good, and it's unjustifiable not to at least acknowledge his positive impact by throwing him in the mix.