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Is Dwight Howard underrated?

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Howard is formidable in the post. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard. Two words. One name.

A name that has generated controversy over the course of an explosive but so far unfulfilled 10 year NBA career.

In his brief but tumultuous tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard’s reputation was tarnished. D12’s fall from grace was already in action after his departure from Orlando, but season 2012/2013 was a nightmare for Howard. His inability to make free throws down the stretch, on court demeanor and chemistry issues with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash saw Howard feel the wrath of the LA spotlight.

The season concluded with the Lakers crashing out of the first round of the Playoffs to the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in a clean sweep. Howard departed Los Angeles as an outcast from both fans and the media, words such as ‘childish’ and ‘overrated’ were spoken freely when discussing D12. Fast forward more than a year and there has been change. Since his departure to the Houston Rockets at the beginning of 2013/2014 season, Howard has drifted away from the NBA limelight.

Is it conceivable that Howard chose Houston, as a means to escape the media spotlight in the bright lights of LA?

This notion of thought seems unlikely, as Howard’s number one priority in this league is to win it all and win big. Be this as it may, the move has effected Howard’s relevance in the league. Despite this, there has been one clear outcome of the messy departure from the Lakers. For whatever reason, whether it being Howard competing for the spotlight with franchise guard James Harden or the relative isolation of Houston from major exposure, Howard has seemingly been forgotten. The result of this?

Dwight Howard is underrated. Outlandish claim? Let’s take a closer look.

Joakim Noah, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Bogut and DeMarcus Cousins. These names have taken hold of public perception when discussing the NBA’s best centers.

Although it would be prudent to assess each center above and compare them to D12, for the convenience of analysis, Noah will be examined further only. Joakim Noah was a formidable presence down low for the Chicago Bulls last season, posting season averages of 12.6 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 1.5 bpg. Noah also claimed the Defensive Player of the Year award as well as collecting All-NBA 1st team honors and finished high in the league MVP stakes. Noah is an undisputed star of the league, he collected 47 double-doubles and 4 triple-doubles in season 2013/2014 and carried the Bulls to a playoff berth. He also converted 47.5% of his shots from the floor and made a respectable 73% of his free throws. Noah secured 24.5% of his team’s defensive rebounds and dished out 5.4 assists a game. The growing argument that Noah is the best Center in the NBA is viable, after all these are impressive stats.

Bulls center Joakim Noah. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, some of Noah’s numbers come up better against Howard’s.

Howard is a notoriously poor free throw shooter, so much so that he has failed in 9 season’s to improve on his rookie year performance (67%). Howard’s career free throw percentage of just 57.4% is significantly poorer than Noah’s (73%). Howard’s poor conversion from the charity stripe has been costly over the year’s and has made him the victim of the Hack-a-Howard strategy.

To continue, for a player who is double teamed in the post as often as Howard is, he is especially poor at finding open shooters on the perimeter. Howard passed off the ball for an assist just 1.8 times a game last season and drops just 1.5 dimes a game over his career.  He’s also averaged over three turnovers per game every season except his first two in Orlando.

Passing off the ball and the position center don’t go hand in hand, but it is an underrated skill set that past greats such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Wilt Chamberlain excelled in. Noah clearly has Howard covered in his conversion of free throws and passing ability.

However that is where Noah’s supremacy finishes. For all of Noah’s strengths, there are as many weaknesses. Howard posted a field goal percentage of 59% last season and has remained around that mark over 10 years, his deft left hook and raw athletic ability means he can score without polished post moves.

Howard also shot 28% from downtown last year (for whatever that’s worth), and averaged over 18 points per contest. Noah is not an offensive weapon, averaging a little over 12 points per game in season 2013/2014. At times he struggles to finish through traffic as his touch around the glass is still a work in progress. The 12% difference between shooting performances last year should be indicative enough that Howard is the superior offensive talent.

Howard after being fouled. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

The most important aspect of a center’s worth however, is defense. Both Howard and Noah have defense in spades. Howard is a three-time winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award and Noah won it for the first time last season. Both players are intimidating inside, yet it is Howard who averages more blocks per game over their careers (2.2 v 1.5) and last season (1.8 v 1.5).

Howard was also was a superior rebounder last season (12.2 v 11.3) and over their careers D12 (12.9 v 9.4). If that wasn’t enough, Howard had a superior rebound percentage, clocking in with 20.1% of Houston’s rebounds, whilst Noah only secured 18.2% of Chicago’s.

Why Howard was overlooked and underrated for the season he put together in 2013/2014 is a mystery. But make no mistake, Howard is still the best center in the NBA.

(Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise stated.)

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