Dwight Howard: Impending Free-Agent Center Doesn't Deserve Max Contract

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates in the final seconds of the game with the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center on January 29, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. . The Lakers won 111-106.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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If written three or four months ago, this headline would read as downright sensationalism, and for many people—staunch D12 apologists in particular—that's probably still the case.

But after what I've seen this season, it's also very much the truth. Dwight Howard does not deserve a max contract this summer.

Let's start with some basics.

Dwight Howard is only 27 years old. He already has three Defensive Player of the Year awards, and in 2009, he led an awkward band of misfits to the NBA Finals. At this point last season, he was a consensus top-five player in basketball—maybe better. Even more unanimous than that merit was his claim to the throne of the world's best center.

This summer he'll be an unrestricted free agent; for the first time in his career, Dwight's future will be in his own Brobdingnagian hands. And for all the reasons outlined above, it's hard to picture a world where someone doesn't throw him a max contract.

But what should happen and what likely will happen are often very different things. Just because Howard's gonna get paid like a max player doesn't mean he is one.

Dwight was determined to start from Day 1 this season, but that haste appears to have taken a serious toll on him. After undergoing back surgery in April, he's never looked fully healthy since arriving in Los Angeles. And now a new shoulder injury has only made things look bleaker.

On Sunday's B.S. Report podcast, Grantland editor Bill Simmons discussed this very issue with Ric Bucher and Marc Stein. Here are some highlights of what The Sports Guy had to say:

"From what you guys have seen from Dwight Howard, would you give him a $100 million, five-year max deal? Because I would not. I really think he's breaking down just completely.

We've seen it before in basketball ... I think when big men lose their athleticism, it's very rare that it comes back.

This guy's had a major back issue and he's had a major shoulder issue now. And athletically, he doesn't look the same to me.

I remember Toronto traded for Jermaine O'Neal (in 2008) and everybody was like 'Oh, he needs a change of scenery, he's gonna be fine.' Meanwhile, if you watched him...it was just like 'Wow, this guy's just not the same athlete any more. What happened here?'"

The parallel to Jermaine O'Neal—a notorious former All-Star whose career was derailed by nagging injuries—is, admittedly, a little extreme. But it's also very warranted. Check out how their PERs regressed as their bodies broke down:

Player Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Reg. 1-2 Reg. 2-3
Jermaine O'Neal ('05-'08) 20.50 18.86 14.32 8.0%  24.1% 
Dwight Howard ('10-'13) 26.13 24.29 19.19 7.0%  21.0% 

Pretty scary, right?

Howard's regression trajectory is nearly identical to Jermaine O'Neal's. The season following Year 3 in the table is the season Simmons alluded to—the one where O'Neal went to Toronto and pundits foolishly expected a scenery change to revive him.

It didn't.

As the numbers suggest, Howard is much better right now than O'Neal was before leaving the Pacers. And he's sure to continue that trend next season, regardless of where he's playing.

The point here isn't that Howard will fall off a cliff quite that steep; the point here is that after his initial descent, O'Neal never recovered.

That's the big-man trend Simmons was talking about.

Howard deserves a sizable contract, sure, but max deals are reserved for guys on the rise, not on the decline. How can anyone be willing to commit that kind of capital to a guy who may never be the same?

Need some more numbers? Howard's 19.19 PER this season is good for 16th among qualified NBA centers. Here's a partial list of the guys above him, along with their 2012-13 salary (via Spotrac):

Player PER (Rk) 2012-13 Salary
Andre Drummond (DET) 22.49 (2) $2,356,320
Robin Lopez (NO) 20.67 (6) $4,899,293
Brandan Wright (DAL) 20.57 (7) $992,680
DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) 20.27 (10) $3,880,800
Tiago Splitter (SA) 20.22 (11) $3,944,000
J.J. Hickson (POR) 19.93 (13) $4,000,000
Greg Monroe (DET) 19.66 (14) $4,086,453
Nikola Pekovic (MIN) 19.22 (15) $4,837,200
Dwight Howard (LAL) 19.19 (16) $19,536,360

In simpler terms: You can find better center-production than Howard for 25 percent of the price.

That seems like a pretty good place to rest my case.


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