I know what you're all thinking, so I'll preface this article with an advisory statement: If I were building a team from scratch, Dwight Howard would be my starting center. End of story.
His defense stymied Lopez on two occasions this season, holding the Nets young center to two of his lowest scoring and rebounding totals of the year. Granted, Lopez is no slouch—the kid has an extremely high basketball IQ, is becoming a double-double machine, and his numbers are up across the board from his rookie season. Yet, if we were comparing Lopez to Howard head-to-head, Howard takes the cake.
Only this isn't a simple comparison of two talented big men but rather a study, an assessment, a science project of sorts evaluating which player—Dwight Howard or Brook Lopez—is more valuable to their respective teams.
The answer is Lopez.
How did I come to this answer so quickly? I’ll explain.
To begin, lets take a closer look at each player and their supporting cast, and consequently how vital a role each plays on their respective squads. Howard clearly has a better supporting cast than Lopez. He’s got more name recognition. He dunked from the free throw line with a Superman cape on. But put all the peripherals aside and you are left with this simple fact:
Lopez has accounted for 22 percent of the Nets total offense this season.
Howard has accounted for 17 percent of the Magic's total offense this season.
Of course, as I said earlier, one must take into account the surrounding talent each big man has at his disposal. The Magic have, what in many circles may be considered the deepest bench in the NBA. Plus a starting lineup consisting of fellow All-Stars Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter (who took his traveling suitcase full of injuries and bad excuses with him from New Jersey to Orlando in a trade this off-season). And while the Nets “big three” (Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas-Roberts) aren’t pushovers, the injury bug has bitten them all this year, plus they have virtually no bench to speak of.
Which raises the question: Which team would be worse off without each player's respective contributions? If one is looking at just stats alone, Lopez has an edge over Howard in points (19.5 to 18.0), blocks (2.2 to 2.0) and turnovers per game (2.8 to 3.3). And while Howard has a noticeable edge in rebounding and FG percentage, the disparity in each player’s free throw percentage is what stands out like a parka in Tijuana.
In short, finding a center that can shoot over 80 percent from the free throw line on a consistent basis is akin to finding a power hitter who can hit over .300.
In baseball, you take the good (30-plus homeruns) with the bad (sub .275 batting average). The same logic applies for basketball, exchanging the points, rebounds, and blocks for a sub 70 percent free throw percentage. Yet Lopez, who has attempted 142 freebies this season, has drained a remarkable 119 of them (an 83 percent clip), good for third in the NBA amongst active centers with at least 60 free throw attempts.
On the other end of the spectrum, Howard has become the re-incarnation of Shaquille O’Neal at the line, allowing opponents to rely heavily on the “Hack-a-Dwight” tactic, and Superman doesn’t disappoint. He’s already attempted 245 free throws—that’s over 100 more than Lopez—hitting a meager 58.4 percent. Who knows how many games he will cost the Magic down the road. Five? Ten? A championship in game seven down by one? While it’s not Lopez’s fault management has surrounded him with less than attractive talent—thus not allowing Lopez the opportunity to hit these free throws in situations that matter, one still has to appreciate the gift he possesses at the charity stripe. Who would you rather give the ball to at the end of a tight game?
Bottom line: Why is Peyton Manning always in the running for NFL MVP, even when his numbers aren’t always as impressive as his competitors? Because without Manning, the Colts, a perennial 12 win team, wouldn’t crack .500 with their backup (whoever that is) at QB. The same holds true for this argument. If the Magic lost Dwight Howard for the season, and his backup, Marcin Gortat, started at center, Howard’s absence would barely make a dent in Orlando’s overall winning percentage because of the depth they have, and Gortat’s competency on both ends of the court when given extended minutes.
If the Nets lost Lopez? Say goodbye to the two wins they’ve mustered so far, and probably say goodbye to any chance of breaking the 10 win barrier this season. As it stands now, a healthy Nets team is still, in my educated opinion, a 15-20 win team (dream big). If Lopez’s backups, (Sean Williams or Eduardo Najera) played 30-35 minutes per game New Jersey actually does the set NBA record for futility in a season. And it’s not even close.