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John Schuhmann

It's not always smiles and grins between LeBron James and Dwight Howard.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Howard's inside presence critical against Cavs, LeBron

Posted Feb 25 2010 12:20PM

There may not be a more intriguing matchup in the league today than the Cavaliers and Magic.

As they were last year, the Cavaliers have been the best regular-season team in the East. But though their roster is better equipped to deal with Orlando this season, the result of last Sunday's meeting -- a 101-95 Orlando win -- was a reminder that the Magic have what it takes to beat the Cavs come May.


One critical difference between Sunday and the Cavs' earlier two victories against Orlando this season was Dwight Howard's playing time. In the first two games, Howard dealt with foul trouble and played 32 and 31 minutes. But on Sunday, he was on the floor for more than 43 minutes, including the entire second half. Howard led the Magic with 22 points, hurting the Cavs (who are smaller after last week's swap of Zydrunas Ilgauskas for Antawn Jamison) in the low post. But his defensive presence seemed particularly critical in the fourth quarter, when LeBron James scored just three points and the Cavs shot 8-for-23.

Common sense says that Howard's presence has an effect on James' production against the Magic. But just how much? That's a perfect query for StatsCube, which took data from the 16 games the Cavs and Magic have played against each other (including last year's conference finals) over the last three seasons.

The King and Superman
LeBron James vs. Magic, per 36 minutes, since 2007-08
Howard On Floor 565 9.4 19.9 0.473 1.5 4.3 0.338 7.0 9.7 0.724 6.9 3.6 27.3 0.565 -4.4
Howard Off Floor 112 10.9 22.5 0.486 1.3 4.2 0.308 12.2 14.1 0.864 7.4 2.6 35.4 0.615 11.6
Totals 677 9.7 20.4 0.475 1.4 4.3 0.333 7.9 10.4 0.755 7.0 3.4 28.7 0.574 -1.8
TS% = Points/(2*(FGA+(0.44*FTA)))

When Howard is on the bench, James simply destroys the Magic. Note that the numbers above are per-36 minutes, but James has averaged 42.3 minutes in the 16 games. So his no-Howard numbers translate to 41.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists per contest.

When Howard's on the floor, James' numbers are still strong, but there is a clear drop-off, especially in the scoring department. James' shooting percentage isn't down much, but he's getting fewer shots and making much fewer trips to the line.

And when we look at the distance of the shots James is taking, we see that he's just not getting into the paint.

The King vs. Superman (on floor)
LeBron James vs. Magic w/ Howard on floor, shot distance, since 2007-08
Distance FGM FGA FG% %FGA
Less Than 8 ft. 78 117 0.667 0.374
8-16 ft. 12 35 0.343 0.112
16-24 ft. 35 93 0.376 0.297
24-plus ft. 23 68 0.338 0.217
Totals 148 313 0.473 1
The King vs. Superman (off floor)
LeBron James vs. Magic w/ Howard off floor, shot distance, since 2007-08
Distance FGM FGA FG% %FGA
Less Than 8 ft. 22 34 0.647 0.486
8-16 ft. 3 7 0.429 0.100
16-24 ft. 5 16 0.313 0.229
24-plus ft. 4 13 0.308 0.186
Totals 34 70 0.486 1.000

The off-court numbers aren't a big sample size, but we see that James is clearly getting closer to the basket when Howard isn't in his way.

And it's no secret that James isn't as efficient when he's shooting from a distance.

The Cavs' overall team numbers against the Magic reflect those of their star. With Howard on the floor, Cleveland scores just 102.3 points per 100 possessions and takes 49 percent of its shots within 16 feet of the basket.

With Howard on the bench, the Cavs score 110.5 points per 100 possessions and take 54 percent of their shots within 16 feet of the basket.

For the last few years, it's been clear how important Howard is to Orlando's defense, and his importance goes well beyond blocks and rebounds. Howard's presence in the paint allows the Magic's other defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter.

Cavs vs. Magic
Cavs vs. Magic, per 48 minutes, since 2007-08
Howard On 30.0 63.0 0.476 6.6 17.9 0.370 16.9 23.3 0.725 13.0 96.7
Howard Off 28.3 62.0 0.457 8.5 20.4 0.417 24.1 31.1 0.773 9.6 106.1
Totals 29.6 62.7 0.472 7.0 18.4 0.381 18.4 25.0 0.738 12.3 98.8

The Cavs have actually shot better from 2-point range with Howard on the floor than with him on the bench. But they're less efficient because they shoot worse from 3-point range, get to the line less often and turn the ball more often, evidence that Howard's teammates are more effective defenders when he's behind them.

In the second meeting of the Cavs and Magic this season, Howard picked up his fifth foul with 8:56 left in the game. Stan Van Gundy has subbed for his center immediately after fouls two, three and four, but this time he left Howard on the floor, knowing how important it was to have his center in the game. It immediately paid off, as Orlando went on a 7-0 run, but they went scoreless on the eight possessions after that and lost.

Interestingly, the Magic have been a better offensive team against the Cavs with Howard on the bench (scoring 113.2 points per 100 possessions) than they have been with him on the floor (110.2). But he has more than made up for that difference on the defensive end.

Of course, Howard's presence on the floor isn't as critical as James' presence when these two teams meet. When James is on the bench, the Magic outscore the Cavs by 15.6 points per 100 possessions, as opposed to 5.5 when James is on the floor.

But James, as the numbers show, is not as effective when he's got Howard standing in front of the basket.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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