Posted Apr 14 2010 10:30AM
For the second straight season, Dwight Howard leads the league in rebounds and blocked shots. And that may be all you need to know in determining that Howard should win his second straight Kia Defensive Player of the Year award. But Howard's value on defense goes well beyond boards and blocks.
When he's playing, Howard's blocks account for less than 5 percent of the shots the Magic's opponents take. Of the shots that opponents don't get blocked while Howard is on the floor, he rebounds 29 percent of the misses, a hefty percentage. That means that 71 percent of those rebounds go to someone else. So on a vast majority of defensive possessions, Howard's hands don't even touch the ball.
Still, Howard is NBA.com's choice for Defensive Player of the Year for exactly that reason -- what he provides the Magic when he's not blocking a shot or grabbing a rebound.
Orlando is the best defensive team in the league, allowing 100 points per 100 possessions. They have a defensive-minded coach, but other than Howard, the other four starters don't have great defensive reputations.
Matt Barnes is probably the best defender of the group, but he played his last three seasons with the defensively deficient Suns and Warriors. Rashard Lewis was part of a lot of bad defensive teams in Seattle before he came to Orlando. Vince Carter's Nets were a very good defensive team in 2005-06, but got worse every year after that and ranked 23rd defensively last season. And Jameer Nelson has been burned by plenty of point guards around the league.
Hedo Turkoglu was one of those other four defenders last season, when the Magic were the best defensive team in the league as well. This season, Turkoglu is a starter on the worst defensive team in the league.
Simply put, Howard's presence makes his teammates better defenders. They can be aggressive on the perimeter because they have Howard behind them. It's no surprise that the Magic allow the fewest paint points in the league (just 38.3 per 100 possessions).
Indirectly, Howard also defends the 3-point line. His teammates can run their man off the line, knowing that he's not getting all the way to the rim. Last season, the Magic ranked second by allowing their opponents to shoot 34 percent from 3-point range. This year, their 3-point defense has fallen off and they rank 23rd, but because they run their opponents off the line, they're still in the top half of the league in threes allowed per possession. And they still force their opponents to score just 24 percent of their points from mid-range, the highest rate in the league.
There's a caveat when calling Howard the best defensive player in the league, because his job is much different than the NBA's elite perimeter defenders. Staying in front of Kobe Bryant and getting a hand in his face when he rises for a jumper requires more work than it does to help out and challenge him at the rim.
But no matter how good Shane Battier or Luc Mbah a Moute may be on the perimeter, they can't make the same impact that Howard does in the paint. Battier may be the Rockets' best defender, but Yao Ming is still their most important defender. There's no arguing that Yao's absence is the biggest reason that the Rockets went from being a top-five defense last season to being a below average defense this one.
Size matters and Howard's biggest tools defensively are his natural gifts: his height, width and athleticism. Still, there are plenty of big, athletic guys in the NBA who aren't nearly as good defensively as Howard.
It takes more than natural gifts to become the most important defensive presence in the league. It takes intelligence and experience to be in the right position to help out teammates and to make the most of the 2.9 seconds in the lane. It takes the right balance of aggressiveness and discipline to block and alter shots without getting into foul trouble or losing position on rebounds. And it always takes energy and focus to be the best defensive player over the course of 82 games.
Is Howard all the way there yet? Probably not. At 24, he can still get better defensively.
And that's a scary thought, because right now, he's already the best.
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