Denton: Howard Deserves MVP Award

By John Denton
April 6, 2011


ORLANDO – Even now, some eight months later, Orlando Magic superstar center Dwight Howard has flashbacks to July and August when he would spend two to three hours a day in gymnasiums all over the world shooting jumpers and perfecting his hook shot with both hands.

Howard was a man in demand last summer, twice traveling to China for promotional appearances, making a third trip to India for the NBA and also spending time in New York and Los Angeles furthering his acting and musical aspirations. But regardless of where he was, Howard would always seek out a gymnasium – usually at U.S. army bases – to perfect his craft and prove that he was far more than just the NBA’s premier defender and rebounder.

Howard and the rest of the basketball world see the fruits of all of that work now on a nightly basis as he has boosted his scoring average to easily the best mark of his career (23.2 points per game) while also carrying his Orlando Magic across those broad shoulders of his.

``I just think back to all of the work I put in this summer, shooting free throws and bank shots every night. Coming late to the gym, shooting a thousand shots a day even though I had a lot of stuff going on,’’ Howard said. ``I never let the other stuff affect my work in the gym because I was determined to get better. I was in the gym everyday religiously shooting thousands of shots.’’

There is great satisfaction for Howard in knowing that he made it a point to take his game to another level this season and he’s in fact done just that. Whether or not that ultimately translates into earning himself the first Most Valuable Player trophy of his career or not is still up for debate, but Howard is confident that this is the best basketball he’s ever played in his life.

``I think I’ve gotten a little bit better every year, but this has been my best year as far as having more complete games,’’ Howard said. ``There have been games where I’ve had bad free throw nights or so-so shooting nights, but I feel like I’ve still been more consistent than ever on both ends blocking shots, playing defense, rebounding and just being there for my team.’’

If that doesn’t constitute being MVP worthy, then maybe those voting for the game’s most prestigious honor should rethink the criteria for the award. Chicago point guard Derrick Rose is the heavy favorite because he has taken a Bulls team that was in the middle of the pack last season to the top of the East, but Howard has muscled his way into the debate with an impressive body of work of his own.

And put together as a whole, Howard’s resume is a quite impressive one. As the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and the NBA’s leader in double-doubles yet again, Howard is easily the game’s best defender and rebounder. Combine that with the fact that he is also far and away the NBA’s premier low-post scorer, and it’s a strong case that Howard, 25, makes as being the league’s best all-around threat.

``I’ve always been impressed with Dwight as a player, a worker and his overall demeanor,’’ said Milwaukee Bucks guard Keyon Dooling, a former Magic player.

``From a skills standpoint he has made drastic strides. He’s added things on both blocks. He’s not just relying on the running shy hook. He has the left hook, the right hook on the right block and the face-up jumper. And there is still room for improvement – that’s the crazy part.’’

His all-around effectiveness is evidenced in the numbers where he ranks 10th in the NBA in scoring (23.2), second in rebounding (14.2), third in field goal percentage (59.6 percent) and fifth in blocked shots (2.35). If he keeps that up over the final week of the regular season, he would become just the 10th player in NBA history to finish in the Top 10 in each of those categories, joining the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Bob McAdoo, David Robinson, Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy sees Howard’s dominance on a nightly basis and is understandably biased toward his superstar center. Van Gundy is quick to credit the growth of Rose (tied for sixth in scoring at 25.1 ppg. and 10th in assists at 7.9 apg.), the leadership of Kobe Bryant (also sixth in scoring at 25.1 ppg. and almost unbeatable since the all-star break) and the all-around play of LeBron James (26.6 ppg., 7.5 rpg., 7.0 apg.).

But Van Gundy said when you look at the raw data for both offensive and defensive numbers, there’s just simply not another player in the NBA who affects the game as much as Howard.

``To me, with his rebounding, his scoring and his defense, I just don’t think there’s anybody that impacts as many possessions in a game as Dwight does,’’ Van Gundy said. ``I think Derrick Rose has been great. I will have no problem at all if Derrick Rose wins the MVP. They’ve got the best record in the East and he’s been clearly their leader. You can make a great case for him. I have never been running down another guy. I think it’s a hard choice to make, but I still don’t think anyone impacts the game as many possessions as Dwight does.’’

Defensively speaking, the Magic are a top five team because of Howard’s intimidation and protection of the rim. The Magic rank fifth in the league in points per game allowed (93.9) and fourth in field goal percentage allowed (43.6 percent). Teammate Jason Richardson said he often chuckles at seeing how many foes pull up rather than driving or alter shots all together because they know the Magic’s shot-swatting center is always lurking.

``I would say that we are one of the top defensive teams in the league and that’s largely due to Dwight. On the defensive end we’d go from one of the top three or four teams defensively to clearly in the bottom half of the league if not even lower,’’ Van Gundy said. ``He’s a major impact defensively – he’s the best defensive player in the league and I don’t even think that’s close. And then he’s averaging 23 points a game now, too. People have always talked about his offense needing to improve, well it has. There have been a lot of games where he’s had to carry us. There’s just not much more he can do on a court for his team than he’s done.’’

Fifth in the MVP balloting last season after accomplishing something no player ever had ever done before – he led the league in both rebounding and blocked shots two consecutive seasons – Howard went to work on his offensive game over the summer. He spent a couple of days with Olajuwon in Houston, and then did the lion’s share of the work on his own in gyms all over Asia, India and in California.

Now, he’s boosted his scoring average almost three points a game. He’s put up 35 games with at least 20 points, 16 30-point games and two 40-point efforts. His arsenal of weapons is so much greater now what with the jump hooks, the running hooks, the combination moves and the face-up bank shot.

Still, Howard is baffled that such a big chunk of the game – defense and rebounding – is overlooked on a nightly basis. When watching ESPN’s ``SportsCenter,’’ he usually chuckles because it’s dunks and acrobatic jump shots that make the highlights. He knows that that coverage plays a big role in the ultimate winner of the MVP award, but it’s not what ultimately wins games.

``The MVP should be about whoever does the most for their team. But it seems like one year it’s about who is scoring the most points in the league and then the next year it’s about who has the most player of the week awards,’’ Howard said when asked about what constitutes a MVP in his mind. ``There’s not enough stock put in defense and rebounding and it’s all about the flash. Everybody knows that, but I try not to get into it. I’m just out there doing what I can to help my team. I think I’m very valuable to my team and what we’re trying to accomplish. I just have to keep doing it regardless (of whether he’s the MVP or not).’’

With the Bulls sitting first in the East and the Magic locked into the No. 4 seed, the two teams could potentially meet in the second round of the playoffs should they both advance. Rose, the heavy favorite to win the MVP, could be presented the award at midcourt with the Magic and Howard looking on.

And if that happens, look out for the fury and destruction that Howard could unleash on the Bulls that night. But regardless of what happens in the balloting, Howard says he is at peace that he has done everything in his power this season to improve his game and lead his Magic basck into championship contention.

``It would be an honor to win it,’’ Howard admitted. ``I’m just happy with some of the stuff that’s going on with my game, but I have to keep doing it for my teammates and myself. The work is going to keep paying off for me and my team as long as I keep putting in the time.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com. Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at AskJD@orlandomagic.com.